Movie Review – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, written and directed by Peter Strickland, is set upon a fantastic premise: in the 1970s a reserved British sound engineer named Gilderoy, played by Tobey Jones, travels to Italy to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, which he mistakenly assumes is about horses. He soon discovers that he has been hired to oversee the sound design for a giallo horror film, and as the film’s Foley work progresses the boundary between reality and cinema begin to blur. Giallo fans will undoubtedly find a lot to appreciate in the many homages found throughout.

Strickland strips cinema down to its bare mechanics as we see Gilderoy create the noises for the soundtrack. We never see the film he is working on, but come to know it only through narration, written notes, voice actresses, and the sound effects which Gilderoy is crafting. Italian cinema is a perfect vehicle for this type of story given its penchant for post-synching sound (sometimes poorly so as anyone who has seen many films from this era can attest). Italy’s reasons for leaving sound to post-production stem from post-war woes, as the cameras and equipment available were of poor quality and troublesomely noisy. Though sound studios were available, they were not sound-proofed. Yet another reason for dubbing is sex appeal – by separating an actor from his/her voice directors could cast them on appearance alone. Finally, Italy rarely subtitles foreign films, and dubbing foreign movies, coupled with post-synching their domestic work, has maintained a self-sustaining sound industry.

It is in this unfamiliar world that Gilderoy finds himself, ignorant of the language, customs, and genre in which he is now working. We sense his isolation, never leaving the confines of the artificial sound studio. Strickland frames his shots beautifully and the sound design is, as would be expected, terrific.

Nevertheless, despite these very strong aspects of the film there were elements that simply did not gel with me. Strickland relies heavily upon symbolism, such as rotting food to show Gilderoy’s deteriorating sanity or a spider who he lets stay in his home as a nod to his acceptance of his current station, but the signals are repeated so often that they verge on redundancy. Ultimately, the film gets so caught up in its own symbolism that it forgets to tell an interesting story, and what’s there is stretched incredibly thin. At the halfway point I realized with a sinking feeling that hardly anything had actually happened. It’s like taking a beautiful scenic ride by driving in circles – eventually you want there to be a destination. We get a continuous buildup of tension that gets lost in an overly self-indulgent third act and an ambiguous, sudden, and unsatisfactory ending. Yes, one can dig to find meaning in the ending, but if there was an emotional connection to be felt I was numbed to it.

I’ve never been a film student, and my cinema literacy is self-taught and centered upon historical analysis and genuine appreciation of the craft, and I emphatically claim no expertise. My understanding of the technical aspects of filmmaking is shallow, and I fully admit that there may be more present in the film to those more well-versed than me that will allow them to connect with the film. But for this humble viewer, after all the promise of a great premise, Berberian Sound Studio became overly self-indulgent and did not deliver on its potential.

Grade: C

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