I don’t know why–after watching and reviewing Escape from Tomorrow a week or so ago–I thought to myself, “I really want to watch another surrealist horror flick.” I especially don’t know how that search led me to Berberian Sound Studio, a movie by British writer/director Peter Strickland, but I think that the general stylistic approach is similar enough that I can justify my review as a follow-up to Escape from Tomorrow.
Berberian Sound Studio (2013)
Plot: British sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels to an Italian post-production studio to create and record effects for a brutally violent 70s horror flick (a genre that is called “giallo,” the internet tells me). The continuous barrage of horrific recordings he has to listen to begin to wear down on him, and the world of the sound studio becomes increasingly indifferentiable from the world of the film.
I assume you can see where surrealism might come into play, here. Strickland is not afraid to go for weirdness over structure, logic, or rhythm, and that lack of restraint is both admirable in its disquieting effects on the audience and a massive flaw in what could otherwise be a near-perfect movie.
In terms of successes, the cinematography (Nicholas D. Knowland) and editing (Chris Dickens) are incredible. The close-ups on food—namely vegetables that are mutilated in various forms to mimic grotesquely violent sounds—give the movie a texture that matches the nauseating permeation of what Gilderoy has to listen to all day. The invisible edits that move Gilderoy from the studio to his home build as he fails to keep his work life out of his mind, and we feel his mental barriers crumble. Even the focuses on film reels, projectors, and other cinematic features manage to match the psychological nature of the film.
The nature of Gilderoy’s discomfort is also a strong point, as his problems are understandable and disquieting. The basic cultural differences between the stereotypically stoic Englishman and emotional Italians imbue a sense of tension; the film crew members speak their minds, while Gilderoy can barely manage to speak a full sentence. His (and my) inability to understand Italian adds a disorienting frustration with which anyone who has been surrounded by speakers of an unfamiliar language will empathize. The initial tensions are grounded and human, but allow for the introduction of the strange.
That being said, the movie shifts between too on the nose and so masturbatory in its strangeness that there is a lack of impact. Strickland confuses a leitmotif with a cinderblock in the studio sign that says “Silenzio,” and even the editing techniques lose their impact when they show up for the fourth or fifth time. After the movie takes its time building up the strangeness of the story and setting, it hits a point where the screenplay might as well have said “General fuckery.”
Some of the effects are chilling, but the complete abandonment of a grounding in reality does not suffice for an interesting directorial choice. There needs to be some sense of movement or even resolution; David Lynch, who is famous for this style, has shown that you can have resolution in non-resolutions, if you are careful in what you depict. When this movie ended, it felt flat, as though it went for big shakeups but then wanted to end on a quiet, reflective note. I don’t think that the shift was handled well at all. SPOILERS I mean, I get what they were going for: these micro-infringements on Gilderoy’s quiet disposition tear down his walls until he realizes he is not unlike those whom he finds unsavory, as evidenced by his sudden ability to speak Italian. But…it’s not developed enough—nor is it a particularly interesting point to center your film on—to justify the focus. END SPOILERS
I did enjoy Berberian Sound Studio; it’s creative, unique, and engaging. That being said, it is plagued by what I perceive to be the ills of a daring director figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I think that Peter Strickland’s movies will become increasingly interesting as he hones his talent, and Berberian Sound Studio is leaps and bounds above a substantial proportion of horror/thriller films. However, weirdness is not enough to make a brilliant movie on its own. This movie needed more genius and less, “Hey, let’s have this girl say she was raped, because that’s weird or whatever.”
One last complaint: I don’t know if this is the fault of Netflix or not, but for a movie that is focused on sound design, you would think the sound for the movie would be well mixed! I don’t think there was a single three minute stretch in this movie where I had to blast the volume to hear what on Earth that meek Englishman is saying, only to have to rapidly turn the volume down so that the high-pitched screams didn’t blow out my ear drums. I tried watching this on a television with a great sound system and on my computer, and no matter what, I couldn’t get absorbed in the psychological slow burn because I kept having to hear my stupid laptop go “bloop bloop bloop” so I could figure out what vegetable the Italian director wanted to disfigure next. Ugh. Get yourself together, Berberian Sound Studio.