Written & Directed by Peter Strickland
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Antonio Mancino
I find it absolutely astonishing that “Berberian Sound Studio” is only Peter Strickland’s second feature-length film (“Katalin Varga”, in 2009, was his directorial debut). His latest effort is so assured, so wise, so aesthetically and technically accomplished, it is almost inconceivable that it was made by someone this early in his career. It speaks of remarkable things ahead.
The “plot” as such: Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a British sound technician brought to Italy to help concoct and mix the audio track for a film directed by the mysterious Santini (Antonio Mancino). Buffs and cineastes will quickly recognize that Santini is a thinly disguised Dario Argento (or Mario Bava), an auteur (of sorts) who earnestly denies his gore-fest is a “horror” movie, using historical significance as an excuse to portray unbridled butchery and sadism (always directed toward women). Gilderoy’s misgivings accumulate as he realizes his talents are being employed in a project that he finds morally repellant, made by men who are untrustworthy and avaricious, heedlessly exploiting those around them, brow-beating and intimidating any who resist.
There is so much to praise about this movie. It is a rare treat for those of us who revere cinema with all our hearts to find a film that speaks directly to us, that lovingly demonstrates the techniques and technologies that bring the art form to life. There are gorgeous inserts of gears and sprockets and moving heads, the devices utilized to give shape and sound to a film in post-production. We are reminded that making movies in the pre-digital era used to be a hand-on process, the physical manipulation of celluloid and tape, cutting and splicing, adding and extracting. “Berberian Sound Studio” is a wistful tribute to the analog age.
Toby Jones is a marvel as Gilderoy. He undergoes a remarkable transformation (bewitchment), arriving at the studio out of breath and hopeful, then gradually deflating as the indignities and affronts directed toward him take their toll. Increasingly disillusioned, bullied and chastened by the film’s producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco in a star turn), Gilderoy loses orientation, the movie’s horrific subject matter insinuating itself deeper and deeper into his psyche, befuddling his senses, threatening the seat of his soul.
References to Argento’s “Suspiria” abound in “Berberian Sound Studio” but I also found aspects of Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” present. Like Polanski’s hapless Trelkovsky, Gilderoy is an outsider, isolated within a larger community, a solitary man in a city of strangers. Unfairly tormented, ill-treated, withdrawing from the world, seeking some kind of sanctuary from his persecutors. Both put up a brave resistance, neither survives wholly intact.
“Berberian Sound Studio” is great film-making—thus, I was disappointed and angered to see such a small audience the night I attended. Four people, I kid you not. This movie deserves to be seen: it is an insider’s view of motion picture making but, even more, it is a quiet and effective thriller, a spooky and unnerving, yes, horror movie, where not a single drop of blood is spilled.
One of the best films of the year.