Sunday, August 04, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio / ***½ (NR)

Gilderoy: Toby Jones
Francesco: Cosimo Fusco
Silvia: Fatma Mohamed
Santini: Antonio Mancino
Elena: Tonia Sotiropoulou
Veronica: Susanna Cappellaro
Elisa: Chiara D’Anna

IFC Midnight presents a film written and directed by Peter Strickland. Running time: 92 min. Not Rated (Contains verbal descriptions of sexual violence and disturbing images).

I heard about “Berberian Sound Studio” long before it was officially released in the United States thanks to a friend of mine who is obsessed with music. He turned me on to the soundtrack for the film months ago. Until the movie itself came to the best little art house in Mid-Missouri, the soundtrack was about all I knew about the film. Because of that soundtrack, I knew I had to see it once it opened at the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri.

The soundtrack album, with original music by British electronic musicians Broadcast, sculpts an aural soundscape of a 1970s Italian horror flick, the like of which made by filmmakers like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. It encompasses not only the musical sound of the Italian horror flick, but the screams, the scraping of metal on whatever, the feedback of poor recording, and various other strange sounds found in the oddball stories of Italian horror.

“Berberian Sound Studio” isn’t an Italian horror movie, however. It is about the making of the soundtrack for one. It is a horror movie of sorts, though, and it embraces many of the aspects of those Italian 70s films it emulates. It follows a British sound designer, played by Toby Jones, who is hired by an Italian filmmaker to create the soundtrack for his latest opus, “The Equestrian Vortex”, which depicts the fate of an all-girl equestrian club that uncovers a cursed coven of witches. One of the amazing achievements of the film is that without showing any footage from the film within the film, other than the opening credits, it gives you the impression that you’ve seen it.

There is a sense of unease from the first moments of the movie when Toby Jones’s character, Gilderoy, first arrives at the sound studio to a very cold, but very attractive receptionist. She sends him into the studio. They’ve been waiting for him. He meets the producer, Francesco, with whom Gilderoy will spend most of his time. Francesco has a strange sense of professionalism where interruptions of the work are largely ignored, but any time Gilderoy lets an opportunity for complimenting his colleagues pass, whether they deserve it or not, is met with great scorn. The actual director of the film only shows up on a whim and is the least professional of the bunch, bringing his barking dog with him into the studio and committing sexual harassment toward his female actors as if its part of their contract.

Gilderoy doesn’t fit in with the Italians. He doesn’t speak the actual language or the cultural language. There is a dispute over his plane ticket, for which he was promised reimbursement. Francesco keeps giving him the run around and Gilderoy’s meek nature doesn’t allow him to stand up for himself in the way that is respected by the Italians.

Gilderoy’s biggest obstacle, however, is the material of brutality and murder to be found in the film for which he is creating the sound. When he finally meets the director, a man named Santini, he professes that he’s never worked on “a horror movie before.” Santini is offended at the notion of his movie being labeled as horror, which it clearly is. He claims to be telling truths about life with his movie. Soon those truths begin to work their way into Gilderoy’s psyche. That’s when the movie takes a turn into the truly bizarre.

Writer/director Peter Stickland is obviously a fan of the Italian horror scene, but his film never veers into the occult or the ridiculous nature of violence found in those movies to which he is paying tribute. He keeps the terror of Gilderoy’s purely within his own psyche. He uses the notions of those horror movies to create tension, but nothing ever pays off in the way the audience will expect. That’s not to say it doesn’t pay off, but the payoff seems to come more from the direction of David Lynch’s stranger concoctions than Dario Argento’s.

There’s a sense that Strickland was also inspired by the environment he worked in as a filmmaker. Much of the film’s tension comes from very real frictions that must exist within a group of artists working on a project of which they aren’t all clear of the point. The actresses doing voice over work for the film—the Italians in the 70s would record all their dialogue after the actual filming had taken place—express discomfort with what they’re being asked to do in the sound booth. One in particular doesn’t scream to the producer’s satisfaction. When she suggests her character would try to be more quite, he scolds her for questioning the director’s choices.

I also couldn’t help but think that at some point during the making of a previous film, Strickland looked at everything that went into just the sound mixing of a film production and said, “I can make an entire film just out of all of this.” His camera lingers on the stranger aspects of a foley artist’s work (these are the people who recreate real world sounds in a sound studio, often with different material than those that produce the sounds in life) and spinning tapes that make up the sound recordist’s work in the pre digital age. The effects of both of these aspects of filmmaking add to the creepy atmosphere of the film.

Naturally, what he relies on most for the film’s effectiveness is the soundtrack itself. Choosing such a specific film genre as Italian horror provides Stickland with one of the richer soundscapes a director could possibly manipulate. From the ghostly sounds of a woman speaking in Latin, to the screams of victims, to the discordant score so wonderfully recreated here by Broadcast, the sound in this film is relentless. It becomes easy for the audience to relate to Gilderoy’s loss of a grip on reality. The fact that it is his job to keep the soundtrack going makes his situation inescapable.

In terms of atmosphere created by the production design and the sound design, “Berberian Sound Studio” is near perfect. Only the head-scratching ending keeps me from awarding it my highest rating. The gonzo nature of where this film ends up is by no means a betrayal of what has come before, but I wonder if it made the writing of the screenplay a little too easy. It’s one thing to write an ending that the audience has to figure out. It is another to write one that the writer himself hasn’t quite figured out. I’m not sure which one this is. Perhaps another viewing will give me more confidence that everything is by design. The fact that I’m willing to watch it again, however, says something about the film’s success that can’t be said about most.

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