Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Producer: Keith Griffiths, Mary Burke
Stars: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Tonia Sotiropoulou
A British sound engineer descends into madness while working on an Italian giallo/horror film.
“Berberian Sound Studio” saunters confidently out of the gate, with a calculating stride that hypnotizes through imagery and deliberate pacing. Then along the way, it starts wandering after tilting its head up to the sky, mesmerized by its own daydreaming quality. Before long, this loss of orientation results in a lot of banging into walls and tripping over attempts at style that serve artistry more than they serve narrative.
Toby Jones is Gilderoy, an English expatriate who has taken a job crafting post-production sound on an Italian movie titled “The Equestrian Vortex.” To his unexpected chagrin, Gilderoy discovers too late that the film has little to do with horses. In the tradition of Italian giallo/horror films with misleading animal titles like “Don’t Torture a Duckling” and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet,” “The Equestrian Vortex” is really about witches undergoing torturous interrogations.
Gilderoy was already out of his element by being in a country where he does not speak the language, and where the crew is quick to greet him coldly. With no other outlet for his already uncomfortable isolation, Gilderoy becomes consumed by the assignment at hand. Before long, his hours are reluctantly spent reviewing tapes of hideous screams, plunging knives into produce, and simulating the sound of hair being torn out. Gilderoy finds himself changing in strange ways as he succumbs to the maddening effects of being a stranger swallowed by a strange world.
Sumptuous visuals bathe in colored lights and crisp close-ups tighten the world of the sound studio with a boa-like constriction. The cinematography and carefully plotted editing mirror the gradual descent of Gilderoy, and it works magnificently to cast the audience under its spell, both willingly and unwillingly.
“The Equestrian Vortex” is a mystery unto itself. With only the title sequence ever depicted onscreen, the horrors repeatedly pummeled into Gilderoy’s senses are open to imagination. His days are filled with the film’s warbling goblins, poultry tunnels, and witches prodded with hot irons.
The actual story of “Berberian Sound Studio” is another vortex altogether. The film has an intentionally mysterious plot that alludes to several interesting possibilities while painting the viewer directly into Gilderoy’s canvas of slowly swirling madness. Gilderoy’s initial aversion to horror grows into fascination. His reluctance to stab lettuce heads for a sound effect turns into a blade-thrusting passion. Even his off hours away from the film are unable to escape the influence of his experience. Dreams are plagued with strange visions. His behavior turns from meek and demure to irritable and demanding. And when the Accounts department informs him that there was never a flight from Heathrow to Italy on the day he traveled, making it impossible for him to even be right where he is standing, his identity crisis has come full circle. Fiction and reality suitably blurred, the atmosphere is sufficiently primed. And then…
Nothing happens. None of these threads are fully explored. The film does not come to a sensible ending so much as it simply stops before feeling as though it even reached a climax. “Berberian Sound Studio” crafts a house of cards undone not by the weight of one more spade, but by a willful swipe of an arm. Writer/director Peter Strickland seemingly aims for the waking dream state of a David Lynch film. Instead, he creates a hollow shell with a veneer of visual artistry, but without a searing brand of meaningful purpose.
What started as a promisingly moody thriller ends up as a meandering letdown. “Berberian Sound Studio” has the appearance of knowing where it was going and what it wanted to be, and then seems to find itself without a firm identity before reaching the midway point. The film is still modestly enjoyable as a treat for the eyes and ears, particularly for giallo fans that also appreciate a peek behind the curtain at the art of post-production sound. If only the meat of the film had as much to chew on, “Berberian Sound Studio” could have made more of a lasting impression.
Review Score: 55