Berberian Sound Studio
Giallo, is it me you're looking for?
Berberian Sound Studio, in which Toby Jones plays the mild-mannered sound engineer of nature documentaries flown to Italy to work on a low budget horror flick, is one of 2012's more peculiar movies and one that I am at least glad I caught up with on demand. Riding the crest of a wave of hype from many whose opinions I consider of importance, I was quite looking forward to this peculiar, low budget affair for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Toby Jones is one of England's finest and most consistently excellent character actors; a man whose very inclusion in a film pretty much guarantees a measurable baseline of quality. Secondly, it has a plot revolving around the psychological pitfalls of sound engineering. Now, before you run a mile at that notion consider the two most notable (nay, only?) entries in the "sound engineering thriller" sub-genre are the intriguing Blow Out and the frankly monumental The Conversation. All things on balance, the niche subject matter at which you probably just snorted in derision is actually, on a quality per square minute basis, one of the best represented in the industry.
Berberian begins promisingly enough; Jones' unassuming protagonist Gilderoy is the archetypal emotionally repressed, bookish Englishman, a fish most decidedly out of water among his Italian colleagues and their passionate emotive tendencies. Things trundle along nicely enough to begin with, with Gilderoy's initial hesitance over the nature of the movie soon giving way to a workman-like dedication to the task at hand. Gilderoy at first distances himself from the passionate interjections of his producer and director, preferring to keep a low profile as their fury and disdain is directed towards other members of the team.
Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the nature of the movie is having a gradual, cumulative effect on Gilderoy's psyche. There are shades of American Psycho Patrick Bateman's obsession over video tapes as our protagonist wrestles increasingly erratically with an outstanding expenses claim, and as the production staff around him gradually drop their polite pretenses in the presence of this foreign visitor so too does Gilderoy gradually become more vocal and, subtly, unhinged.
Berberian has, up until this point, displayed an effective reserve, with writer director peter Strickland's hand a very assured presence at the helm. The final couple of reels, however, gave me issues that I haven't fully resolved in my own head yet, and I found Gilderoy's apparent drop into full-on insanity a little too obtuse to deal with within the context of the rest of the movie. This movement of the film is most obviously inspired by Lynch, and in attempting to replicate the nightmarish fracturing of narrative and logic that Lynch himself has made a trademark it felt like Strickland had bitten off slightly more than he could chew.
The over-dubbing of Gilderoy in Italian is a nice device that, in retrospect, would have intrigued me if it had been used throughout the film, but the sudden deployment of it within the final reel as a tactic in deliberately obfuscating the viewer's understanding of events felt too meaningless to me as a narrative tool. True, it is something that Lynch might get away with, but so often in his films that sort of thing is working in parallel with other devices that are in play throughout, not just in the build-up to a bewildering climax, and his is an overall atmosphere of pervasive menace rather than somethig deployed specifically toward any conclusion.
More interesting is Gilderoy's torture of a replacement voice actress using the one weapon he has at his disposal: sound. Echoing the disregard his superiors show for their female employees, Gilderoy's amplification of that sentiment feels as though it's coming from a place of sexual repression, possibly hinted at by letters from his mother, and ultimately reveals much more about the character than Strickland's attempts at invoking Mulholland Drive.
All of this is no to say Berberian Sound Studio is a faulty movie, nor one which is unenjoyable. Indeed it's quite the contrary, and there is a great deal to enjoy about Strickland's direction in the first hour, along with uniformly excellent performances from the cast (though jones in particular is, predictably, a powerhouse) and, as one would expect, superb sound production. The only limiting factor for me was the jarring transition into the final act, though I concede I may have completely misinterpreted Strickland's intentions and would definitely wish to give the film a second viewing.
While I do not doubt others' commitment to Berberian Sound Studio as one of their ten best films of 2012, I am only able to judge it at present on first viewing impressions, and those impressions have given me cause for reservation. Repeated viewings may well bring about a better resolution to those reservations, and I will be intrigued to watch what Peter Strickland does next, but right now I'm calling this an intriguing curiosity.
Cosimo Fusco (Francesco)