Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio” was a film I hadn’t even heard of three weeks prior to the MIFF guide coming out. However one of the websites I regularly frequent did a small piece on it, and it immediately piqued my interest. When the MIFF guide finally came out I was ecstatic that “Berberian Sound Studio” was on the list of films playing, so within a few weeks a film that I had never even heard of had become one of my most anticipated titles at this year’s MIFF. What was the reason for my excitement for this film? Peter Strickland has created a fabulous homage to the Italian horror and giallo films of the 1970’s, and has done so without making that style of film, instead what he has come up with is truly his own.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a sound recordist and engineer who comes to Italy to work on the famous director Santini’s latest horror film. When hired for the job, Gilderoy was unaware of the type of film that he was going to be working on, so he is taken aback initially by the horrible and disturbing footage he is shown and must work with. Constantly bombarded with gruesome image after gruesome image, not to mention forever hearing women screaming for the soundtrack, Gilderoy struggles to keep a straight mind while working on the film’s sound mix. Add to the ingredients of living in a foreign country away from any family, struggling with the language barrier, as well as finding that his quiet English ways clash with the brutish ways of the Italians, and there is a valid reason why Gilderoy is constantly stressed. As all of this stress piles up on him and the demands of the film increase, Gilderoy’s mind appears not to be able to take it, and it starts to bend in on itself until he is not even sure that what he is seeing is real or not.
“Berberian Sound Studio” is such an intriguing film, as well as a little frustrating at times. Peter Strickland has captured the 1970’s vibe (the film is set in 1976) perfectly getting every minute detail, in regards to the horror cinema produced in Italy at that time, totally spot on. The amazing thing about “Berberian Sound Studio” is the film is not a giallo (Italian thriller) at all, but Strickland has included all the visual elements of those films in this stunning homage. From close-ups of eyes and mechanical devices working (the film reels), to the black gloved assistant, to the composition of frame, all of it reeks of the era depicted. The music and sound effects are especially good and mimic the atmosphere of those films as well. What is frustrating, but also makes a lot of sense, is that we never get to see any of the footage that Gilderoy is working on. Instead we hear descriptions of the scenes before they are played for Gilderoy and even from these descriptions you can tell that this made-up film would’ve been right at home made back in the 70’s. The descriptions are so visually dynamic, you just want to see some footage from this film. The only thing from the film that we do get to see is its opening credits and again, Peter Strickland is obviously a massive fan or has done his homework because if I didn’t know better I would’ve sworn these were the credits from an existing film, they are perfect and the music playing over the top of them is amazing.
So if the film is not a giallo what exactly is it? Well the further the film goes along the more it messes with our (and Gilderoy’s) mind. In fact it is the last third when the film starts to bend in on itself and makes less and less sense that it becomes less satisfying. Do not get me wrong, it is always intriguing but you may get frustrated by the lack of answers to the questions you may have. Personally I didn’t think the film came to a satisfying conclusion, but I am hoping to revisit this film and see how it changes after a second viewing.
In a rare leading man role, Toby Jones portrays Gilderoy as a meek and cowardly man. He is shy and has no interest in talking to people and really just wants to do his job and leave. However Jones does a great job of showing the growing stress on Gilderoy and how it is affecting him until he is pushed too far and explodes into aggression. For the majority of the film you really feel sorry for this home sick fish out of water.
For a film that is all about sound design, you would hope that the sound design of the film itself would be pretty special and it is. It is incredibly atmospheric with whispering windy sounds blowing throughout the soundtrack and the use of women’s screams are used expertly to unsettle the audience. Combined with the music, it makes “Berberian Sound Studio” a very creepy experience indeed.
Overall, I really liked “Berberian Sound Studio” a lot, but on my first viewing of the film found it’s ending to be not entirely satisfying. Hopefully when re-watching the film at a later date, I will be able to unlock some of its mysteries. The homage aspects of the film are so well done, to the point I do not think they could have been done better. When the film ultimately turns out that it wants to mess with your mind, I was all for it, but think I need more viewings of it to understand the finale better.