We watched the Berberian Sound Studio (dir Peter Strickland, 2012) last night. The ending felt very flat, to the point of ruining the movie (did the project run out of money or ideas?) but on reflection today, it did have some excellent moments. Plus it provided a fascinating insight to sound effects and the intricacies of being in a sound studio, which is good as the next part of the DFP course is about sound…
The protagonist is Gilderoy, played brilliantly by Toby Young, who is an exquisitely stiff-upper-lip-Englisher in the fetid, sleazy world of 1970s giallo films. He has been brought in to work on a movie called The Equestrian Vortex, which - we quickly discover - is a brutal, misogynistic horror film (by implication this is possibly Suspiria – dir Dario Argento, 1977 or something similar). Although the viewer never sees the film we are forced to imagine the scenes from the voiceovers and visceral sound effects.
Gilderoy is totally unprepared for the appalling scenes he has to enhance through sound but he seems to stay on the job as a result of being broke and also feeling that it is the professional thing to do. He loves the studio (we hear that he only has a garden shed in England for his work) in a wonderfully nerdy way and is flattered to think that he is the best man for the job. Gilderoy – a perfectionist - is manipulated by the intensely vile Francesco (played by Cosimo Fusco) and the film’s charismatic creator Santini (Antonio Mancino), handsome and charming but ultimately lecherous and predatory with the female actors.
It was not clear to me what was happening towards the end. I suspect that Gilderoy has a kind of breakdown as he feels that he has become part of the actual film by being complicit in making such a gruesome piece of cinema. He is suddenly able to speak Italian even in the flashback to when he first arrives. One of the actresses practices her lines by speaking words from a letter sent by Gilderoy’s mother, which she could not have seen.
The mise en scene is excellent in creating a mood of menace and claustrophobia: lots of use of dark shadows; throbbing red lights; close-ups of rotting vegetables; women in the recording rooms screaming in apparent silence; power cuts; distortion of sounds – especially the human voice; a focus on the machinery – turning reels and projector lights to indicate the monotony of the work. We become hypersensitive to sound like our anti-hero, leaving our nerves on edge throughout the film. The whole movie is set underground - in the studio, Gilderoy’s room (next door?) and the corridor nearby – we get the sense that our man has been imprisoned.
There were echoes of the mystery of Barton Fink and for much of the film we feel a great secret may be revealed that things are not as they seem. This is interspersed with lots of black humour and the hilariousness of an Englishman abroad (the scene where he gets angry to try to get his expenses paid is brilliant).
This is a disturbing and ambiguous movie with lots of surreal moments. It is slow, brooding and quite creepy – manipulating the minds of the viewers to create the horror reflected in our protagonist’s wide eyes. By the end, we have no idea what or who is real. I would have given this pretty high marks if it had not just fizzled out so disappointingly in the final moments but I would recommend it for anyone obsessed with films.