Review: Stylish ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ a Bit of a Slog

Review: Stylish 'Berberian Sound Studio' a Bit of a Slog

Style is a strange creature. Without it, a film fails, but
with too much of it, that same film can fall into tedium. Which brings me to my
problem with Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” a moody, elegantly
shot tone poem of one man’s crisis at an Italian horror studio that was critically hailed across the pond. After two
viewings, the film has left me bored.

It’s 1976, and dumpy, perpetually adrift-looking Gilderoy
(Toby Jones) starts his first day at the Berberian Sound Studio on the wrong
foot: the pretty receptionist is rudely dismissive of him, and he can’t receive
compensation for his flight over from Dorking (!), his hometown in the UK.
Gilderoy was previously a sound-man on tourism documentaries, and his new gig
— working on a film called “The Equestrian Vortex,” in which a slew of babes
ride horses, contend with witches, meet grisly ends, or are themselves
horse-riding witches who meet grisly ends — is considerably sleazier than he
imagined. Gilderoy must not be too familiar with the giallo, an erotic-horror subgenre that emerged in the 1960s Italian
film industry, of which Berberian seems to deal in some of the more
disreputable examples.

Periodically hanging around the recording studio are producer
Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who oversees the dubbing and sound effects process,
and the great horror “maestro” Santini (Antonio Mancino), both equally slick
and robustly stereotypical Italian men whose lechery, misogyny and general
fascination with female dismemberment Gilderoy can’t quite relate to. Or can
he?

One of the conceits at the center of “Berberian Sound
Studio” is that Gilderoy, as opposed to being an innocent spectator of the
sordid goings-on at the studio, is himself complicit in the sexism and violence
towards women that is enacted day in and day out, either on screen or off. He
isn’t just standing by and looking uncomfortable (though he does a lot of
that), he’s taking part, hacking up heads of lettuce and ripping radishes to
bits as he finds the perfect sound effects to accompany the ludicrous horror
film being made.

This is an enticing premise, though it’s bogged down by
Strickland’s insistence on padding his 88-minute film with repeated shots that
convey more cool style than sinister substance. I enjoy a textural close-up of
lettuce as much as the next person, but it’s an abundance of shots like this —
accompanied by spooky if eventually monotonous synthy ambient noises — that
makes me wonder if “Berberian Sound Studio” would have been better served at a
tight 60-minute running time.

Jones gives the role of Gilderoy a suitable amount of heart
— his reading and re-reading of letters from Mum and the “comforting” sound
effects tapes he plays while alone in his flat nicely convey his homesickness. But nonetheless he’s out to sea, not given
much to do and treading water because of it. A character can only cast confused
glances so many times before he becomes a pill, and even as Gilderoy’s tendency
towards violence escalates and he forms a half-intriguing friendship with one
of the studio’s beleaguered actresses (Fatma Mohamed), he still can’t overcome
his overarching inertness. He’s often overshadowed by the nifty sound effects
he creates, an alchemy that usually involves some combination of household
appliances and vegetables.

The film has a sense of humor, thanks to a periodically
clever script by Strickland that captures the campy spirit of the giallo. (Scene directions repeatedly
read aloud in the recording studio include “a dangerously aroused goblin” and “a
secret equestrian library holding a treatise on witchcraft.”) Indeed, the
comedic elements capture a sense of mood better than the extended stylistic
montages, as they effectively tap into the perverse juxtaposition of
ridiculousness and gory terror at the heart of the cult Italian genre
Strickland so clearly loves.

Luxurious shots of Gilderoy’s hand pushing
soundboard switches, color-coded charts explaining where certain effects
belong, and a flashing red “SILENZIO” sign — all very pretty, perhaps too much
so — ultimately drain the film of exactly the creepy, seedy tone it’s reaching
for. If only this beast were a little more compact and a little less impressed
with its own artistic flourishes, it would be much more satisfying to carve
into.

“Berberian Sound Studio” hits theaters and VOD on June 14, via IFC Films.

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