Review: Berberian Sound Studio

Starring Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi

Directed by Peter Strickland

Edinburgh International Film Festival

In the 1970s, a mild-mannered sound engineer (Toby Jones) travels to Italy to work on a giallo (horror) film, only for the strange environment to warp his mind…

Much-anticipated, the world premiere screening of Peter Strickland’s second film (following the art house effort Katalin Varga) at the Edinburgh International Film Festival lives up to its billing. This is a weird love-letter to the Italian giallo horror efforts of the 1970s, filtered through the bewildered perceptions of Gilderoy (Jones), a mother-fixated sound-recordist cast adrift in mid-1970s Italy.

The attention to detail is apparent immediately through the fake film-within-the-film titles for the wonderfully titled The Equestrian Vortex (a tale of resurrected witches out for revenge on the attendees of a riding school). The film being dubbed (which we never see) appears to be a riff on the works of Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava, and is clearly the kind of thing poor old Gilderoy has never seen before, having previously worked on films chronicling the bucolic English countryside.

The analogue technology of the time is lovingly recreated, as is the approach to creating sound effects in the pre-digital era involving many marrows and other assorted fruit and vegetables. There is much humour to be mined from this, while film buffs will get a lot from the in-jokes about the giallo-type movies Strickland is exploring.

For the first half Berberian Sound Studio is a fairly straight-forward fish-out-of-water tale as Gilderoy attempts to get to grips with the laid-back Italian approach to life and work, while missing his home (he has a sound effects reel of his mother’s house to assuage his homesickness). After that, as the pressure begins to build, Gilderoy seems to go through a mental breakdown. This is cleverly conveyed on screen through a mystifying mix of dream sequences, further abstract film moments, and Gilderoy suddenly being dubbed in Italian! It’s a David Lynch-like approach that leads to a 2001: A Space Odyssey-style baffling conclusion that escapes comprehension and explanation.

There are few films majorly concerned with sound (DePalma’s Blow Out, Coppola’s The Conversation, and maybe Chaplin’s later works all spring to mind), but Berberian Sound Studio makes it central to both its story and its on-screen realisation. How odd, then, that one of the key moments of Gilderoy’s meltdown is conveyed through the rather hackneyed image of showing a melting film frame, visual shorthand for a hard-to-depict event.

Verdict: A fascinating, amusing and intriguing work somewhat let down by a baffling and unsatisfying conclusion. 7/10

Brian J. Robb

Berberian Sound Studio is released nationwide on 31 August 2012, following its debut at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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