Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)
I saw Berberian Sound Studio in a 110-seat theatre. It was a Wednesday matinee, so I expected a light crowd, but I was one of four people in the seats. The conclusion I had reached by the end of the film was that there were one hundred six people who had had the chance to catch a Wednesday afternoon matinee of Berberian Sound Studio and didn’t, and there are one hundred six people in this world who are worse for the experience. To make it short: if you are at all a fan of movies, even a casual fan, you can simply forget the actual plot of the film: this is a study in fascination, an endlessly-interesting look at film composition during the golden age of giallo.
It’s obvious that everyone involved in the making of this movie eats, sleeps, and breathes giallo, which is one of the things that makes it so effective. It also means that people who are already familiar with the genre may find the movie a little more interesting than the general public, but really, rent yourself a handful of mid-seventies Dario Argento pictures and early-seventies Lucio Fulci pictures to get a basic grounding in the field and you’re good to go. (Just in case you actually decide to follow this, grab Profondo Rosso—the 126-minute cut released by Anchor Bay, not the horrific 89-minute piece of butchery that landed in American theatres—Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Don’t Torture a Duckling, and just for the sake of variety, Antonio Bido’s The Bloodstained Shadow and Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows. The last of those, actually, has more parallels in this movie than I realized whilst watching, now that I think about it.) But like I said before, the actual plot of the film takes second stage to the act of putting a movie together, so that’s kind of an optional step that will let you soak in more of the movie’s amazing atmosphere.
The plot: Gilderoy (The Hunger Games‘ Toby Jones) is a timid, mild-mannered foley artist from England whose specialty is travel and nature documentaries. (For the uninitiated, a foley artist is the guy who creates and mixes the ambient sounds in a movie—for example, when we see a shot of one of Gilderoy’s finished products, there’s a sweeping panorama of a British countryside view that has an orchestral soundtrack and some birdsong. The foley artist is the guy who goes out, records the birds, sits down with the footage, and then puts together the music and the birdsong and syncs it all with the visuals. There are a lot of amazing shots of sound storyboards here, and I wish I knew enough about foley work to know what those things are called because I probably sound like an idiot right now, but man, Strickland uses them to great effect here.) Before the film starts, we soon learn, he got a job offer from Italian director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino in his first feature film, and he looks far less like George Clooney in the movie than he does in his IMDB headshot) to come and do the foley work on Santini’s newest “equestrian” film—which turns out to be a supernaturally-driven giallo picture called The Equestrian Vortex. The timeframe of the movie is never explicitly stated, but it’s obviously meant to be during giallo‘s golden age, which would put it somewhere between roughly 1971 and 1978. Not that is matters, other than in the costuming, as the entire film takes place in the titular sound studio and Gilderoy’s rented flat. Gilderoy, obviously not used to working on such fare, find himself shocked, and not a little grossed out, by the onscreen goings-on, but every time he expresses his misgivings, the producer, an overbearing jerk by the name of Francesco (The Card Player‘s Cosimo Fusco), browbeats him into submission. He is cowed by the two sound effects guys, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Josef Szeres, both in their first screen appearances—minor characters, but oh how I loved them, and both have very bright careers ahead of them), who really are kind of scary. In fact, his only real friend on the set seems to be Silvia (Katalin Varga‘s Fatma Mohamed), one of the film’s leading ladies, but even she keeps asking questions that make Gilderoy uncomfortable… questions like why he thinks Santini chose him to work on the movie. The closer the crew gets to finishing the film, the deeper Gilderoy has to reach into himself to hold on to his sense of reality…
I’ve seen the movie called a horror film and a psychological thriller. I would not consider it either of those things, and I wonder how that mismarketing makes the film play with audiences. There are elements of both, of course—like I said, this is a movie that is steeped in the giallo tradition—but, and I say this at the risk of spoiling the movie, though I will attempt to do so in as minor a way as possible, though I will tell you “stop reading now and just go see the damn thing!”, ultimately it is yet another character study of a person who is slowly going mad. And yes, I say “yet another”, because how many movies of that type have we seen since good old Gaslight? But holy crap, Strickland, and let’s remember that this is just his second movie (Katalin Varga was his first, and it just rocketed to the top of my must-see list), piles on the style, style, style. To give you one of the movie’s less-subtle symbols for Gilderoy’s failing grip on reality, the crew use a huge amount of produce to come up with their sound effects; one of the Massimos drops a squash in order to simulate the sound of a body hitting concrete, Gilderoy rips the green tops from bunches of radishes, etc. Francesco provides the crew with a bin to toss all the refuse in (and I did wonder, given that Gilderoy is strapped for cash throughout the movie, why he wasn’t just taking all this stuff home and eating it, but honestly, just roll with it here), but he never gets round to emptying it, and every once in a while we cut to that bin and see how much more rotten the vegetables are. And then there’s the thing with the daddy longlegs that keeps appearing in Gilderoy’s room. (That is not going where you think it is.) But the real killer here is Toby Jones himself. This is a tough role. Gilderoy is balancing any number of emotions on a very fragile beam here, as well as becoming more and more paranoid, but still trying to keep up the air of professionalism that will allow him to finish the movie and get the hell out of Dodge, and Toby Jones is marvelous at depicting this. I wish I could tell you more about some of these scenes, and some of the stylistic choices Strickland makes in the final third of the film that really start bringing it all home, but the less you know about this movie going into it, the better off you will be, and I have already probably said far, far too much here.
Besides, it’s all about the sounds anyways. I spent as much time marvelling at the inventive uses of produce in this movie as I did cringing at Gilderoy’s timidity. I suspect you will as well. And you know what? I can’t believe I got through this entire review without mentioning Berberian Sound Studio‘s own foley guy. I mean, a movie that’s about a foley guy is pretty much guaranteed to have its audience paying more attention to foley than any other movie they’ve ever seen, and Heiki Kossi—a guy popular enough in the biz that since his career as a foley artist started in 2000, he’s racked up almost one hundred fifty credits (on this side of the pond, the most notable is probably the cult horror-comedy Rare Exports)—rises to the occasion. He gets a good deal of help from foley recordist Miia Nevalainen (Kossi’s version of Massimo and Massimo!), and man, they do the job. I kept looking for nits to pick in the sound in this movie, and I couldn’t find a one. I went into this movie with ridiculously, unrealistically high expectations, and it lived up to them all.
I am just now realizing that sound has played a huge part in three of the last four movies to which I gave five stars—Mary and Max, Eli Eli Lema Sabachthani?, and Absentia. Berberian Sound Studio focuses on sound; what do you think is going to happen here? I am one of those guys who is continuously behind the loop where movies are concerned, and to date (I’m writing this on June 26, 2013) I have only seen thirty-nine movies released in 2012; I am having a very hard time believing, even despite that, that 2012 produced a better movie than Berberian Sound Studio. The fortieth movie, barring a few revisions that got bumped down half a star or so, to which I have ever given five stars. *****
Trailer. But what are you spending time watching a trailer for? GO. SEE. NOW.