FrightFest 2012 Review: Berberian Sound Studio
Review by Ben Bussey
Film is a powerful and mysterious thing. No wonder it becomes an obsession for so many of us, as it affects us in ways we do not completely understand, by means that are often completely unknown to us. For this reason, there can be a particuar potency to films which centre specifically on the medium of film itself, and the means by which it is put together. Whilst such works can on the one hand serve to demystify film by exposing the mundane realities behind the grand illusion, they may also wind up making the medium seem more bizarre and truly magical than ever. Such is the case with director Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, the haunting and perplexing account of a humble English sound engineer going out to work on an Italian film about witchcraft and witch hunters, and the psychological toll of this work.
It is the late 70s. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a mild-mannered, middle-aged, very down-to-earth sound engineer who generally works on such inoffensive fare as nature documentaries and children’s television shows. However, as we join him he is arriving at the Italian studio of the title to work on the latest film from director Santini (Antonio Mancino). Everything about the situation is worlds apart from Gilderoy’s usual filmmaking experience; the language, the informality, the beautiful young people, the hints of hedonism, the unfettered emotion, and most worrying of all the extreme reluctance to pay for anything, including his travel expenses. But perhaps the biggest shock to the system is the content of the film itself. Gilderoy finds himself spending all day every day recording hour after hour of blood-curdling screams and grisly sound effects: splattering watermelons to simulate stabs, beheading radishes to simulate hair being pulled out, pouring oil in a hot pan to simulate burning flesh. But while the film takes over his life, Gilderoy remains an outsider in Santini’s circle, witnessing the tensions building in-house yet remaining separate from it all, particularly as he doesn’t speak Italian. Under such alienating circumstances, the line between what is real and what is imagined inevitably begins to blur.
This makes for an interesting film to screen the day after the remake of Maniac. Although the two films are far removed in tone and content, they both challenge the audience by highlighting key aspects of film; whilst Maniac makes the viewer contemplate the role of the camera, Berberian Sound Studio naturally makes us contemplate the role of sound. The key trick (if want to call it that) is that, aside from its opening titles, not a single frame of Santini’s film is actually seen, so that all we get is the audio and how it is created: the lurid music, looped-in dialogue, coldly detached descriptions of the onscreen atrocities, and of course the bizarre sound effects created by Gilderoy and his co-workers. We have actors coming into the sound booth who seem like the most ordinary people in the world, until they provide the voices of whispering witches and ‘aroused goblins.’ This alone makes Berberian Sound Studio truly fascinating, and surely even more so for diehard fans of the kind of 70s Italian horror that is being paid tribute to (although, watch out for Santini’s reaction when Gilderoy flippantly describes it as horror…). Also, as Strickland revealed in the Q&A, the methods and equipment used are accurate to the period, and many of these were indeed used to provide the film’s sound effects.
Describing the plot in detail is largely pointless. There’s a rather Kubrickian approach taken here, as the driving force really isn’t the narrative; Strickland is more interested in getting us under Gilderoy’s skin, prompting us to feel what the character is feeling, and as such if we wind up largely bemused and disorientated by what we are experiencing – well, job done. But the further we get into the running time (which, happily, is not over-indulgent), the more things dissolve into a state of Lynchian weirdness. There’s a definite Mullholland Drive quality to the conclusion, which I will say nothing more on as a) I don’t like spoilers and b) if I’m entirely honest… I didn’t really get it. I think this is one of those films you need to watch at least twice and really reflect heavily upon before you can completely make sense of it. However, I get the sneaky suspicion that if you dig deep enough, there really are answers to be found here, unlike some films from recent years which took a cryptic approach only to hide a hollow core (coughkilllistahem).
The only other key thing to add is that, if the option is available, Berberian Sound Studio is a film that you really should try to see on the big screen. As a Q&A participant quite rightly emphasised, seeing it at the Empire Leicester Square, plunged in darkness with a top-of-the-range sound system and a screen that’s only a whisper shy of IMAX size, Berberian Sound Studio makes for a truly intense, immersive sensory experience, the likes of which you really can’t recreate at home. It’s also well worth noting that, whilst I may have made it sound like a totally cold experience in alienation, Berberian Sound Studio is not without a sense of humour, wringing some good fish-out-of-water laughs from Gilderoy’s discomfort amidst all the Italianness. So you will have fun, as well as being driven to reassess your relationship with film and the way it interacts with your consciousness. Confrontational, experimental filmmaking with heavy duty metaphysical musings aplenty, but still a few shits and giggles along the way; where you can go wrong?
Berberian Sound Studio is in UK cinemas from Friday 31st August, via Artificial Eye.