Fantastic Fest Review: 'Berberian Sound Studio'
Toby Jones struggles to capture the sounds of horror in Peter Strickland's affectionate and frustrating nod to giallo films
By William Goss Oct 14, 2012 11:06PM
Poor Gilderoy (Toby Jones). He’s a foley expert used to working on innocuous nature documentaries, and he’s gone through the trouble of flying from England to Italy, only to discover that “The Equestrian Vortex” isn’t about horses. At all.
We gather from the disgusted looks on Gilderoy’s face and the deadpan descriptions of his peers that it’s a horror film, but don’t call it that in front of director Santini (Antonio Mancino); he considers his work to be something “brutal and honest,” regardless of that hot poker going where it doesn’t belong. So Gilderoy soldiers forward, despite the hostility of colleagues like Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), despite his nigh comical inability to get travel expenses reimbursed, despite the increasingly distressed letters from Mum back home, despite the hallucinations...
It doesn’t take long for Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio” to become a formally playful tribute to the giallo films of the ‘70s, only with a meek middle-aged schlub as our main protagonist rather than a poor young schoolgirl (as "Vortex" would appear to have). Nonetheless, he’s a foreigner abroad, alone, isolated in and by his work. We see the flicker of projection, the strobes of a light calling for “silenzio,” the countless charts that dictate the sickly sounds of the day, and we see Gilderoy as he becomes repulsed, confused, aggravated, tearing into all manner of produce day after day while screams ring in his ears. (Naturally, this film’s own sound work is ace, not to mention informative in context of a bygone analog setting.)
Horror isn’t usually what Gilderoy does, and we get the impression that this isn’t how he usually behaves. Strickland eagerly begins to distort our sense of his reality, slyly segueing between scenes and littering nearly every shot with some touch of red, and Jones embodies the man’s mounting anger and anxieties to a T. He is a stranger in a strange land, disgusted by and trapped between an unending barrage of on-screen violence and constant off-screen cruelties, whether bureaucratic or misogynistic in nature. What’s more, his performance is critical to the film serving as much as its own effectively eerie psychological horror outing as it is an overt homage to those films of the era. For instance, we never see any footage from “The Equestrian Vortex” itself, save for the opening credits, which in turn replace “Berberian’s” own. And down the rabbit hole we go...
Alas, Strickland’s agenda of knowing dissonance grows somewhat repetitive come an anything-goes third act intended to replicate the similarly nightmarish ones of giallo fare. Even by the standards of films that were often themselves averse to traditional narrative structure, the climax offered here lacks a suitable plot impetus with which to escalate matters rather than deflating them. The first two acts are funny and fun in their moody evocation of both the period and the genre, and the film’s final shot is an aptly foregone conclusion, but right around when Gilderoy starts to lose his mind, “Berberian” begins to lose its way.
IFC Films plans to release “Berberian Sound Studio” in early 2013.