BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
Written and Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco
I’ve been saying for years that sound design is one of the most important roles in horror films. It becomes like another character – a faceless one at that. When it’s creatively utilized, it can amp up the tension of a scene or downplay any drama. Thank goodness director Peter Strickland thought so too with his (somewhat) tribute to the importance of sound design, BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. While technically this is more of a character study than a tribute, the film involves one man pushing his tolerance for sounds to the outer limits.
We first meet English sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) on his first day at work at Berberian Sound Studios in Italy. Naturally this fish out of water starts off on the wrong foot with the sassy, gorgeous receptionist when he insists on being reimbursed for his airfare – one of the film’s long running gags. Once settled, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s high-strung but welcoming producer, shows Gilderoy the opening credits for the film they will be working on – a 70’s Italian sexploitation horror flick that director Santini (Antonio Mancino) calls art. Blown away by the graphic images he’s subjected to watch in order to match sound effects, Gilderoy’s self-doubt and questioning begins as does our intense downward spiral into his mental breakdown.
Strickland does a wonderful job peppering the film with indelible, haunting imagery. The rotting compost pile, the film stock melting into another film, the flickering red light of the studio; it all feels very Kubrick-ian in its influence and execution. He layers in character developments in an organic fashion – a rarity in films these days. And he draws all of his characters so richly without any expository speeches. Even the surly sound booth engineer gets a moment to shine. Seeing how the men manipulate sounds and images to create repulsion is nothing short of fascinating. Strickland constantly keeps the audience on their toes and on the edge of their seats waiting to see what happens next. Like any good horror film, tone and atmosphere play a huge part. Nicholas D. Knowland’s warm, soft toned cinematography stands in sharp contrast to the sinister undercurrent of the film’s narrative.
If there is any malady, it’s that the film goes a little too bonkers (i.e. experimental) during the story’s third act. While it works brilliantly to augment the character’s personal journey, it will lose many viewers. leaving them to exit the theater on a perplexed note. This may suit the film’s “What the fuck just happened?” vibe, but will not suit a mainstream audience’s needs.
Having seen this film weeks ago, the story still haunts me. Jones does a tremendous, kick-ass job as a man pushed to his limit. His loveable charisma is addictive and allows the audience to care about his plight. He’s homesick and working on a project that’s horrifically shocking and testing his boundaries – how many of us wouldn’t go nuts too?! Life imitates art, as do the meta themes of this picture. It may be hard to wrap your head around this one, but if you put your mind to it, you’ll be pleased you spent some time with these colorful characters.
4 out of 5
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO plays AFI FEST on November 3 and 5.