Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Mi senti adesso? Mi senti adesso?
The giallo is a style near and dear to my heart, and longtime readers of The LBL have surely heard me extol their virtues on many occasions. However, the central conceit of the film hinges more on the process of how Italian films, all Italian films were made. Recorded without live sound, everything was done in the studio. This both relieved the problem of a cast often made up of international actors, but it also made for easy refitting for a foreign audience. This process of orchestrating the sound of a film is what the lead character of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy as played by Toby Jones, enters. His previous experience as a sound engineer had been with nature documentaries, and the letters home from his mother, who he seems to still live with, are filled with updates about birds rather than friends or relatives. From this solitary existence, he moves into another, the confines of Berberian Sound Studio, where little is to his understanding. With no knowledge of the Italian language, Gilderoy is often completely alone in a room with his colleges with only dials and knobs to twiddle. He also seems fearful of the violent content of the film, evocatively entitled The Equestrian Vortex, but as he continues to stab cabbage, rip radishes, and record piercing screams, the world of the film and the studio begin to blur.
Despite playing a pivotal role in Berberian Sound Studio, we see only a title sequence of the movie within the movie, and the rest is left up to our imagination and the sounds that Gilderoy creates for the grisly imagery. (Though from the few clues I did gather, it seemed The Equestrian Vortex was a bit like Susperia in jodhpurs.) For this reason, and because little happens during the course of the film, I believe many could easily find it boring, and I can understand that completely. Though for anyone with a love for Italian genre film, Berberian is a love letter to the style and time that hits it right. Italian horror is so very often not about the story, and there is precious little story here. It is about the mood and the tone. The way the music makes the viewer tense or shocks them. The sound of a footfall echoing or the vaguely Latin muttering of a foul witch or apparition. The Italians married in their horror films (and other genres as well) the style and depth of the art film movement, which had preceded the explosion of popular cinema in the 60s and 70s, with the "b movie". Sometimes ambitious above their skill or fueled by false pretension, it doesn't work, but all one need do is to look at seminal films of Argento, Bava, Fulci, and Martino to see this fusion at work.
In this same way, director Peter Strickland relies much more on style over substance, but thankfully, he also had a substantial actor to work with. In the hands of another actor Gilderoy could just appear flat throughout the film, a sad sack with an eternal droop embedded in his very demeanor. However, Toby Jones, an actor often overlooked but nearly always stellar, gives a nuanced performance that kept me enraptured. Subtle cues emerge to how solitary his existence is merely through the characterizations Jones chose to use, and he really conveys how small Gilderoy's life is. Sound is alive to him. He is a professional, but the magic is watching Jones sink his character into the reality of a tableau of sound that is rife with violence, pain, and misery. It is also a ride into seclusion that the audience takes with the character. The Italians have whole conversations and their characters are built before us without being able to understand their dialog. While I caught a few things piecemeal (thanks to watching way too many Italian films), as one would expect Gilderoy would also begin to do, the lack of subtitles for their dialog is a strident, daring, and ultimately perfect choice for this tale of a man caught in a world beyond his understanding.
This is where it gets tricky. I actually watched Berberian Sound Studio weeks ago, and it's been on my mind ever since. I had questions I wanted resolved, and I felt like I must have missed clues or bypassed some understanding. So I watched it for a second time, and while I was still struck by the visuals, the delicate editing, and the performances, the film's conclusion is wobbly at best. The last ten minutes devolve into a fever dream that may contain some ultimate message or clue to the events that transpire, but they seem completely opaque to me if they are there. This lack of clarity at the end of the film, when everything had been so pitch perfect beforehand, left me again a bit bewildered. It only barely takes away from the experience that Berberian Sound Studio offers. There is little to compare the film to that isn't the material that it is paying homage to (as well as the Argento nod in the embedded film's plot, there's also a Foley artist I believe is meant to resemble Lucio Fulci, and an unseen black gloved projectionist), but that is not a bad thing. Fans of Italian horror should definitely take note, and I think anyone who finds the magic and mystery of filmmaking fascinating will find something to take away from Berberian Sound Studio.