‘Berberian Sound Studio’

Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) — Directed by Peter Strickland. Starring Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Lara Parmiani, Gido Adorni.

It is the mid-70s and English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been hired to work on an Italian film called The Equestrian Vortex. But the slimeball director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonia Mancino), has brought him in under false pretenses; while Gilderoy anticipated working on a nature documentary, much to his surprise Vortex is an Italian horror film. Although this isn’t our poor little sound engineer’s cup of tea, he agrees to continue working on the film. But participating in the presentation of the film’s dark violence takes a toll on his reserved, fragile mind.

Berberian Sound Studio is a fantastic, captivating movie, a story of crushed innocence headed towards insanity wrapped in a love letter to Italian giallo films that I would happily sign. Don’t go into it expecting a straight up horror movie. This is more of a drama with giallo flourishes about the making of an Italian horror film. If you are unfamiliar with the term, “giallo” is a mainly Italian horror sub-genre that grew popular in the 1970s. They can best be described as highly stylized, occasionally supernatural, ultra violent thrillers. The elements of these films became a major influence on the American slasher films that flourished in the 1980s. The visual style of Berberian Sound Studio is not so persistently self-conscious as your typical giallo film, nor is it anywhere near as violent, but it dashes enough of the common tropes throughout to delight anybody familiar with the genre– quick shots of a black glove operating the film equipment, the overly dramatic organ music, vibrant opening credits, and obviously dubbed dialogue.

The sound and dialogue for the majority of giallo films is not used from recordings during filming but is often added afterward in a sound studio such as the one in which Berberian Sound Studio is set. Actors rerecord dialogue and foley artists use props to create nearly every sound effect. The sound of hacking up a watermelon might substitute for the sound of hacking flesh or pulling the stems from radishes could represent the sound of hair ripped from someone’s scalp. Sometimes an English speaking actor’s voice will be dubbed in Italian with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen. This handling of the audio often makes giallo films feel even more detached from reality. It’s a large part of their charm. Viewers may become more aware that they are watching a movie, although that doesn’t seem to be something giallo filmmakers try to avoid, in fact quite the opposite. This stylistic approach is one of the things I love about giallo.

The cinematography of Berberian Sound Studio is a beautiful treat to watch. Warm colors intertwine with deep shadows to create an oppressive atmosphere. Quick, close up shots of old film and sound equipment are interspersed throughout, punching us from one scene to the next. At other times the camera pans around Gilderoy from behind him, taking us from his room back to the studio in one fluid shot. It all blends together to create a disorienting, dreamlike experience.

Apart from the title sequence, which is a fantastic homage to Italian film by itself, we never see footage from The Equestrian Vortex. Instead we see the work the crew puts into the sound– the actors and actresses whispering and screaming, Gilderoy and the foley artists hacking and smashing food for the gory sounds of the slicing and crunching of body parts. Most importantly we see Gilderoy’s reactions to the film and the conflict he feels as he abuses produce for the sake of art.

Toby Jones’s performance as the innocent Gilderoy is outstanding. His pain and frustration are tangible as he creates the disturbing sounds that accompany the violence of the film he is working on. Fatma Mohamed as Silvia, one of the voice actresses recording for Equestrian Vortex, is also incredible. She has a particularly moving scene where she opens up to Gilderoy and the heartrending shot that follows is one of the film’s iconic moments. The Equestrian Vortex isn’t easy on anybody.

If you’re looking for a complete, satisfying ending to Berberian Sound Studio, don’t bother. The final disjointed portion of the film is not an easy one and it leaves you guessing about how exactly Gilderoy’s world is breaking down. And so what? I was surprised at several lazy online reviewers who complained about the baffling final twenty minutes. Newsflash: just because you don’t understand what happened doesn’t make this a bad film! Take some of the responsibility yourself and recognize when a film takes some work. I’m not sure what ending could have effectively expressed Berberian Sound Studio‘s themes while still providing a satisfying closing to its narrative. It would not have been the same film.

If you fall outside the intersection of a Venn diagram of people who appreciate giallo films, enjoy movies about filmmaking, and are content with unconventional endings, then this film will most likely baffle and frustrate you. As the film played out I could sense the type of ending I was going to get and allowed myself to enjoy the ride. It goes a long way to seemingly say “these kinds of films aren’t for everybody” but I loved it.

And by the way, writing about this movie and trying to keep clear when I’m talking about the film within the film is a bit of a pain in the ass.

Here’s a great analysis of the sound of Berberian Sound Studio and how it affects the narrative of the film. This article is also worth reading if you’re interested in the art of foley.

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