Last week I enjoyed some late-night horror courtesy of the Film4 Frightfest season. On Tuesday night they screened a film that I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time now, that film being Berberian Sound Studio, the British film-maker Peter Strickland’s second film after his well received debut Katalin Varga (2009)
At the time of its release, Berberian Sound Studio was the recipient of a number of extremely favourable reviews and within 5 minutes of the start, I knew that I’d be yet another to talk about this rather unique film in glowing terms.
The word that kept coming to my mind as I watched this film unfold, was tactile; you feel everything in a way that is markedly different to most other films.
It is a film that draws you seductively into a narrative that turns in on itself over and over, like an elaborate piece of origami so that by the end you’re left with something that has echoes of its starting point but that is at the same time thrillingly different.
So what exactly is the plot? This itself is incredibly simple; an English sound engineer called Gilderoy is hired to work on a film in Italy at the studio of the title.
The name Gilderoy is one that for me conjures up images of quaint England, good manners and good old fashioned values and that is exactly what we get in the shape of the perfectly cast Toby Jones.
Used to a quiet life and working on more simple, restrained projects, it is the clash of sensibilities, personalities and approaches to work that provide the friction that propels the story towards its conclusion and deeper into the increasingly fragile psyche of Gilderoy.
The Equestrian Vortex
Gilderoy has no idea that he has been hired to work on a film that Argento would be proud of, the wonderfully named The Equestrian Vortex, a film belonging very much in the Giallo genre and very much out of Gilderoy’s comfort zone.
During the course of his work he is consistently put in his place whenever he questions anything, from asking questions about the film he is working on, to trying to gain a reimbursement for the cost of his flight to Italy. He is very much the outsider and kept in his place by his demanding boss at the studio, Francesco, and the films director, the ominous Santini whose relationship with the actresses under his direction and his general way with people being the things that lend him the aforementioned ominous air.
It is in Gilderoy’s sound work on the film that the tactile elements come to the fore, as we are treated to numerous scenes of vegetables and other food being decimated to create the sound effects for the dark, macabre happenings of The Equestrian Vortex. It is in these scenes that the style and tone of Berberian Sound Studio is amplified and where its credentials as an original, creative and different film take firm hold as, delightfully, no violence is ever shown on screen.
Instead, we simply hear the horror of what is happening in this film within the film and what we do see is out of context, for example, we sometimes witness the actresses recording their scenes in the sound booth, complete with screams, and of course the food being destroyed. The emphasis is on the sound and one of the triumphs of this film is that, rather than this detracting from the power of the film, it actually amplifies it.
In the end this film is about sound, the creation of it, the manipulation of it and the power and seductiveness of the auditory world.
As we reach the latter part of the film, it is the device of Gilderoy being kept in the dark as well as his struggle to cope in such alien surroundings that brings about a gradual, then sudden mental unravelling – or turning in on himself which seems more apt – with more questions being raised (in particular in regards to that reimbursement) and no real answers. This lack of answers does not though feel inadequate.
Ultimately it is the unravelling of Gilderoy that pushes Berberian Sound Studio past simply being very good and different into being something extraordinary. It is a film that looks, feels and sounds fantastic and is beautifully directed, shot and edited.
IMDB Rating: 6.2
My Rating: 9/10 (My first 9/10 in a very long time, my first this year and my favourite film this year so far, putting Killer Joe into second place and Side Effects into, well, I’ll leave it as equal second place)