Movie review: 'Berberian Sound Studio' subtly pumps up the volume

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It makes sense that "Berberian Sound Studio," last year's psychological drama from British writer-director Peter Strickland, was conceived as a short film, as Mr. Strickland told The Quietus in August. The 92-minute film is imbued with the bounded setting and compact narrative of a much shorter work.

'Berberian Sound Studio'

3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino.

  • Rating:

    Not rated, but PG-13 in nature for adult themes.

Taking place almost completely in a sound studio in 1976, the film tells the story of Gilderoy (played by the excellent Toby Jones), a British sound engineer who recently arrived in Italy to do post-production work on a horror film. Throughout the movie, we watch Gilderoy complete his daily routine in the studio, adding vocal and Foley effects to what sounds like (we only once see the video of the film itself) a very campy, very bloody supernatural terror flick. In the evenings he continues to work in his room or tries to sleep.

Clearly, Mr. Strickland does not give us a lot in terms of conventional story arc. Rather, the director lets this seemingly mundane premise -- an engineer at work -- compound itself over the course of the film, the story spiraling into smaller, increasingly erratic circles, as Gilderoy's world starts to come loose from its moorings.

Lonely in a foreign country and completely overwhelmed by the bombastic, bullying personalities of the Italian producer and director he works for, Gilderoy longs to return to England, reading with care the letters he receives from his mother, describing the chiffchaff birds that are nesting near the home they share in Surrey.

He befriends one of the voice actresses, Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), only to find her eventually driven from the project by the advances of the playboy director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino).

As work on the film progresses, Gilderoy finds himself gradually becoming more and more immersed in the terrifying and violent universe he is helping to create.

With the studio's Foley artists on sick leave, Gilderoy is forced to take over, stabbing cabbages to illustrate the sounds of a murder and pulling the sprouts from radishes to simulate a woman's hair being pulled from her head, his actions punctuated by tortured screams from his visual prompt.

Confronted with an especially gruesome scene, Gilderoy finds himself incapable of continuing, declaring his intentions to quit the project.

Soon, however, we begin to see a much darker impulse starting to take hold of him.

In a movie chock-full of edible imagery, the rather obvious metaphors -- Gilderoy accepting a demolished piece of watermelon from one of the Foley artists, Santini creepily feeding the Englishman a grape and forcing him to swallow the seed -- are not exactly necessary to show that, at a certain point, Gilderoy crosses a line.

At times, the film falls back on the genre bells and whistles we've come to expect of the psychological thriller: the protagonist's most mundane assumption abruptly contested, the stranger's gaze that lingers just a little too long, the knock at the door with no corresponding caller. Generally, though, Mr. Strickland manages to steer the ship back onto a less hysterical, more compelling path.

True to its subject, the film features beautiful sound and editing work. The close-up shots and vivid sounds of squash being pummeled and watermelons being hacked to pieces have a powerful effect on the viewer, who is left to imagine the images they complement. From the very beginning, scenes meld together with such effortlessness that the viewer might easily miss the impossible continuities -- the first suggestions of the protagonist's madness.

In a scene midway, Gilderoy makes the mistake of calling the movie they're working on a "horror film."

"This is not horror film," the director pretentiously argues. "This is a Santini film."

Applied to a larger context, though, he is right. Instead of relying on the jolting surprises or excessive gore characteristic of the horror genre today, "Berberian Sound Studio" employs much more subtle methods to much greater effect. Creating a patient unsettling portrait of one man's descent into a violent world we never see, Mr. Strickland forces the viewer to imagine the horror unwitnessed -- projected on the studio screen and residing inside the engineer's head.

The result is much more frightening than anything he could show us.

Opens today at Melwood Screening Room and runs through Tuesday.


Lee Purvey:


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