Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Berberian Sound Studio is the Turner Prize of the horror film industry. Some people will lavish praise on its endless daring and invisible meanings, while others will stare at it in disbelief, wondering why anyone should care.
It begins promisingly with British sound technician Gilderoy (the ever excellent Toby Jones) arriving at his new employment in an Italian sound studio circ. 1970. His new role is on a vicious low-budget horror film called The Equestrian Vortex, a movie made in the traditions of Argento and Fulci. Despite his reservations, Gilderoy’s job is to add the sound effects of hair-ripping, strangulation, drowning, head-pulping and general sadistic torture, all the while being told it ISN’T actually a horror film.
For Gilderoy this is new and disturbing territory, previously working on creating more sedate sounds of hoof-beats or bats, so this entirely new experience is a horrifying change. Coupled with the problematic language-barrier and the company’s reluctance to pay for his expenses, Gilderoy slowly spirals into a deranged madness that might or might not be real. Or might just be the imaginings of a fevered brain obsessed with 1970’s Italian horror film music.
Berberian Sound Studio is a divisive film. I had no idea what the film was about before going into it and I have no idea what it’s about now. It starts fantastically well, packed with intrigue, dark foreboding and boasts a brilliantly designed soundscape, but then it gradually bumbles into nonsensical scenes of Italian-speaking Toby Jones, a slice of Dorking documentary and some Lynch-like dream sequences that might be real (or not). This scattershot, deranged ending is both captivating and utterly plotless, appearing as a series of confused events undoubtedly bulging with hidden meaning and aching homage.
But does a film need to make sense? Not necessarily. Some of Lynch and Cronenberg’s work thrives on the bizarre and confusing, although they somehow make a sick sense in the end. Berberian Sound Studio feels like an obsessive love-letter / deconstruction-homage to very particular films, directors and musicians of a very specific period in time. For avid film buffs who shiver excitedly at the name Argento, they will probably love Berberian Sound Studio to the point of climax, but for most normal folks they might find it an incredibly frustrating watch.
Bizarrely even those whom claimed absolute adoration towards Berberian Sound Studio admitted to not really understanding it and agreed that the ending is massively flawed. Does creator Peter Strickland even know what’s happening to Gilderoy? And does that even matter?
I had the same problem with Prometheus, where it felt you needed to watch hours and hours of supporting material and invest in a User’s Guide to fully understand it, although at least that made a truck-load more sense than Berberian Sound Studio. Although I expect a film to be bolstered by its supporting material or director’s commentary, it shouldn’t have it explain everything that was entirely missing from the film itself. Again, some people LOVE this approach and dive straight into the Sherlocking research of it all, but personally I find it a pretentious and needless exercise.
I think I fully realized my problem with Berberian Sound Studio about thirty minutes before the end. This was when I realized it could end ANYWHERE. In fact, there were three times in half an hour where I presumed it HAD actually ended and only on the third occasion did the credits actually roll. To me this isn’t a sign of good filmmaking, but unfortunate self-indulgence.
I am well aware that I risk sounding a little ignorant in this review, but I am not suggesting Berberian Sound Studio is poorly made. Far from it. Peter Strickland does a beautiful job of directing, the entire cast are superb (especially Jones) and the soundscape is – as Strickland called it – “lush and bombastic”.
How do I conclude this? Watch it. Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist you’ll either come away frustrated and angry or utterly amazed. Personally Berberian Sound Studio made me a little angry because it had such potential to be an actual slow-burning, haunting, startlingly-original horror film and instead turned out to be a lovingly-crafted, brooding, homage-laden ejaculation (so to speak) aimed in the direction of 1970’s giallo films.
Berberian Sound Studio is divisive, vastly-intelligent, avant-garde nonsense / utter genius. Watch it and decide for yourself. Whatever the case, it is a deeply unique experience.