Review: 'Berberian Sound Studio'

People love movies about the making of movies. Well, that’s perhaps an exaggeration — general audiences have a history of some apathy towards the genre. But filmmakers certainly love films that go behind the scenes of their own business, from “8 1/2” to last year’s Oscar winner “The Artist,” and cinephiles tend to eat them up as well. But most examples of the type tend to focus on the making of the movie, with a handful, like “Adaptation,” following the gestation and writing of a film, but very few have ever focused on the point at which many filmmakers say their movies actually come together: post-production.

There was Brian De Palma‘s “Blow Out,” which followed a movie sound recordist, and one could argue the case of “Singin’ In The Rain,” but perhaps none have gone into more depth than Peter Strickland‘s “Berberian Sound Studio,” set almost entirely within the Italian post house of the title, and the British director’s follow-up to his excellent 2009 Hungarian-language debut “Katalin Varga.” It’s not just a rarity because of its subject matter, but also because it gives a rare leading role to omnipresent character actor Toby Jones (“Captain America,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Snow White & The Huntsman“). And it’s arguably his best yet.

In a time that’s never specified, but seems to be the 1970s from the fashion and analogue equipment on hand, Jones plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered British sound engineer from Dorking, Surrey. Despite mostly working on nature films and children’s television, seemingly, he’s flown to Italy, and the sound studio of the title, to work on “The Equestrian Vortex,” the latest film from lascivious director Santini (Antonio Mancino). From the (gloriously reconstructed) opening credits, the only footage of the film we actually see, it appears to be a giallo-type horror flick, but Santini (like Strickland), objects sternly to it being described as a horror.  

That may ultimately be a matter of semantics, because it’s clear that the film (involving vengeful witches attacking a riding school) is a gruesome affair, full of stabbing and head bashings and red hot pokers inserted in delicate places, and it starts to take a toll on Gilderoy, already alienated by the language barrier, and by bullying producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco). Distrurbed by the violent images he works with every day, and by increasingly ominous letters from his mother back home, is Gilderoy’s life threatened? Is it the others who should be worried for their safety? Or is he just losing his mind?

Without giving things away, if you’re going in to “Berberian Sound Studio” expecting easy answers, you’ll likely be disappointed. Plot is firmly a secondary concern for Strickland, with tone and feel far more important to the film. For all the Dario Argento tones, David Lynch is the more obvious reference point, right down to the blinking red ‘Silenzio’ signage that haunts much of the film. And Strickland’s command of tone, aided by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” editor Chris Dickens and, of course, sonic wizards Joakim Sundstrom and Steve Haywood, is masterful — jarring and discombobulating the viewer as Gilderoy’s mind unravels.

It’s a film concerned with minutiae, with the whirr of tape (the first noise heard), the twiddling of knobs, and the exact kind of wetness needed from a vegetable to mimic a head plunging into concrete. As such, some might find it a testing watch, especially as Strickland keeps things oblique from the off, and only continues further down that path. It’s not especially scary or suspenseful, not that that’s what th edirector seems to have set out to do. And it’s far from unenjoyable; the film’s look at the Italian horror industry is full of sly humor, and it’s often very funny.

But it’s also highly sinister, and Strickland lays a subtle undercurrent about the misogyny of the horror film, and of the world that spawned such pictures. Santini defends his gruesome torture sequences as ‘truthful,’ depictions of what really happened to medieval witches, but it’s clear from the actresses brought in for ADR, in particular ‘Silvia’ (Fatma Mohammed), who’s derided by her director and producer as having ‘poison in those tits,’ but who befriends Gilderoy, that Santini’s motives are far from pure.

Not that Gilderoy may be much better — still apparently living with his mother, and traveling with recordings of her footsteps to listen to back in his hotel room, he’s notably uneasy around the woman he meets, visibly flinching when he has to adjust the mic in the recording booth when it’s occupied. He’s not quite Norman Bates, but he’s not a million miles away either. It’s not as showy a part as Jones’ excellent Truman Capote in “Infamous” (unfairly overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s take on the same character) — he’s a passive type, a man of little words. But it’s perfectly suited to his sad-sack features, and Jones subtly sketches out a compelling character study in every frame.

You might shuffle in your seat a little during the film, but like last year’s other unnerving British surprise, “Kill List” (that film admittedly much more of a pure genre exercise than this), you come out of the theater on edge and off kilter, amazed at the craft displayed. It’s hard not to wish, at least for the more narratively-inclined among us, that Strickland had made things a little less willfully opaque, particularly in the somewhat abrupt conclusion. And as welcome as the humor is, it does drift into caricature every so often. But despite the minor blips, it’s as original and absorbing a picture as we’ve seen in a while, an experience like few others in 2012, and should mark Strickland’s arrival on the world scene in a big way. [A-]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

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