Peter Strickland's "Berberian Sound Studio" is a largely satisfying enigma in terms of both its story and its structure. While the closest point of comparison for Strickland's eerie audiovisual thriller is Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," its later scenes shift to Hitchcockian mode. In a fascinatingly contained performance that ranks among his best, Toby Jones plays peculiar sound engineer Gilderoy, a shy man tasked with working on the troubled production of an Italian giallo. While initially a face of innocence, Gilderoy suffers a gradual descent into madness that calls into question the reality of each passing moment no matter how hard one tries to work it out. At times frustratingly muddled, "Berberian Sound Studio" is nevertheless thoroughly enlightening for its complex formalism.
The movie's only unequivocal truth is the precision of its technique. From Nic Knowland's noir-inflected cinematography, which utilizes the murky interiors of the studio where all but one scene takes place, to editor Chris Dickens' complex segues from loud, unsettling recording sessions to the ghostly quiet that follows, "Berberian Sound Studio" constructs a perpetually strange, unseemly series of events overshadowed (and sometimes consumed by) the spooky movie-within-a-movie that hangs over every scene.
Drawn into a drama involving the giallo's egotistical director Santini, Gilderoy begins to worry that he's been hoodwinked. Uncertain whether he will get paid for his work, he spends much of the time watching the mounting resentment that Santini's female castmembers feel for their director. But Gilderoy himself isn't exactly sympathetic so much as shocked, confused and eventually furious, feelings that "Berberian Sound Studio" systematically inflicts on its audience.
Apart from exploring the disturbed minds at its center, Strickland cleverly plays with the semiological impulse to associate images with sound. The recording studio is a mad laboratory of smashed fruits and bloodcurdling screams, but since we never see the footage they are intended for, "Berberian Sound Studio" routinely projects itself into the audience's imagination. Like his acclaimed debut feature "Katalin Varga," the narrative eludes precise explanations in favor of constant mystery.
However, despite the constantly jarring sense of disorientation, "Berberian Sound Studio" has a tendency to drag. Even as it explodes with Charlie Kaufman-like mindgames, it remains trapped by a limited set rendered especially tedious by the monochromatic colors and dreary tone. The issue becomes complicated by the Santini character, a thinly constructed stereotype whose delivery reeks of amateurism. Fortunately, he's marginalized by the impish presence of Jones, who has found his Norman Bates role: Letters reveal that Gilderoy lives with his mother, but we know scant details about his past, a decision that makes his motives suspect. By the time he starts speaking in dubbed Italian dialogue, nothing is certain. Jones' crinkled face registers many emotions while remaining fundamentally inscrutable.
Strickland's approach is particularly interesting for the way he conveys the atmosphere of a genre exercise without turning into one. The threat of physical violence hovers ominously over later scenes without making it clear why or how anyone faces genuine peril. The truly dangerous force at the root of Strickland's baffling script is no less than the power of movies to influence our perception of the world. That introduces a different kind of horror to the proceedings than the routine qualities typically found in the giallo and other existing traditions. As reality grows indistinguishable from Gilderoy's delusions, "Berberian Sound Studio" taps into a concept with universal ramifications to which viewers can surely relate.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set to make its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month, the movie opens in the U.K. in August and is currently seeking a home in the U.S. Given the strange premise and formalism, it will be a tough sell, but the movie could enjoy some small-scale arthouse attention with a marketing strategy that plays up Jones' impressive turn.