Berberian Sound Studio

Posted on 07/02/2013

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Image: i.telegraph.co.uk

Artificial Eye are an exceptional name when it comes to cinema, though not always conforming to mainstream sensibilities, I feel they often present something for everyone. A flick through their back catalogue and a random selection of one of the titles is unlikely to disappoint – with seminal pieces including Fish Tank and We Need To Talk About Kevin under their belt, do I really need to say any more?

This almost unclassifiable work of art from 2012 managed to slip by a lot of radars unnoticed, I honestly think it’s one of Artificial Eye’s finest, so hopefully – this ramble should give it a little more of the recognition it deserves.

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Berberian Sound Studio follows the story of Gilderoy (Toby JonesHarry Potter, Infamous) – a meek, uptight sound engineer hailing from 1970’s Dorking. A technical wizard, he is plucked from his comfortable world of recording birdsong and leaves underfoot for nature documentaries – and dropped in Italy, faced with a world of Dario Argento-esque satanism, gore and sexuality.

Director Peter Strickland takes us on a journey inside Gilderoy’s mind, as he is slowly drawn in by the alluring, mysterious horror of ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, the film he is working on – which, despite his initial thoughts, is certainly not about horses. Gilderoy soon finds himself homesick, lonely and disturbed by the nature of The Equestrian Vortex (which, interestingly we never see a single clip from – but are given descriptions in the form of descriptive audio cues). Forcing him to seek refuge in letters from his Mother and memories of the countryside, as he slowly discovers himself and his perception of life begins to alter.

Berberian Sound Studio isn’t so much a film as it is a sensory assault. The shrill sounds of distorted screams, reverberating synths and vegetables being pulped are around every corner, tied together with the underlying hum of analogue tape decks and film projectors – wrapped in beautiful, claustrophobic cinematography and edited together absolutely wonderfully. The way that sound is used to build tension, fear and confusion is spectacular to witness – a far sight better than the musically driven jump scares of modern horror. The flashes of light from projectors, the shots of rotten vegetables (which are used in the sound engineering process), the sight of tape reels spinning create some wonderfully abstract visuals. It’s no understatement to say that the atmosphere here is raw, dark, uneasy and clammy, mirroring some of the work of David Lynch and Roman Polanski yet establishing it’s own place in the world of arthouse cinema. This film will make you uncomfortable, and you’ll feel that way for some time after.

Toby Jones delivers a stellar performance as Gilderoy, finding a perfect balance between the light and dark sides of the character – in one scene bringing a darkly comic air whilst trying to get reimbursed for expenses, and in the next – saying a thousand words with just a single, weathered glance. Though the supporting cast are very talented also (Cosmo Fusco as domineering producer Francesco was a personal highlight) Jones is the class act here, easily on par with his take on Hitchcock in The Girl which aired on the BBC over Christmas – this is hands down, a career defining performance.

Atmosphere and cast considered, the film is absolutely sensational – arguably one of the best of 2012, but (after all, there’s always a but) there is one area that seems to have many of the viewer’s and critic’s opinions split, that being the film’s somewhat surprising third act.

I won’t spoil it for you by going into detail, as I really feel you should experience the film in full – but I think that given the nature of the film and the context of the events within it, the third act was completely spot on. It felt in keeping with the theme, and didn’t feel ‘rushed’ as some have labelled it. I will admit that it threw me slightly to begin with, but the sense of bewilderment and the emotion I experienced during it most definitely sold it to me. But you’ll have to make your own minds up about it…

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Honestly, I cannot recommend this film enough, and I’m sure I couldn’t have done it justice in this post – it’s really something that has to be seen and felt to truly be believed. It’s a career highlight for both Toby Jones and Directing powerhouse Peter Strickland, and deserves to be watched. It’s a must-see for film history enthusiasts and just as essential for the more casual moviegoer.

I really am struggling to point out things I didn’t like with the movie, though there is some slight potential for an audience to be alienated if they didn’t know/care about the Giallo style of horror cinema (the early foundations for grindhouse, and in turn the slasher movie) – but on the other hand, there is enough characterisation and sheer perfect execution to the film that anyone willing to invest could take something from it.

When you’ve seen Berberian Sound Studio, please share your feedback with me on here, twitter or Facebook – I’m eager to find out whether this is a film to be enjoyed by all or only admired by some – is this a classic case of Marmite cinema?

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Posted in: Reviews