Movie Review: Berberian Sound Studio

Published on August 2nd, 2013 in: Current Faves, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Less Lee Moore

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Berberian Sound Studio is a wonderfully self-reflexive film. It is as much about the effects of cinema as it is about the special effects that go into creating it. These ideas converge in Gilderoy, a British sound engineer who moves to Italy in the 1970s to work on The Equestrian Vortex, a giallo concerning black magic rituals.

Gilderoy, imbued with fragile realism by Toby Jones, is a fish so far out of the water that he’s gasping for air on the first day of his employment, ostracized by language and cultural barriers that he’s too polite and timid to overcome. His discomfort is so palpable as to be excruciating. He’s also uncomfortable with the subject matter of the film, which involves drowning, stabbing, hair pulling, and hot pokers shoved inside of women. Director Peter Strickland never shows us the harrowing scenes that trouble Gilderoy’s psyche; we see their impact on his face and eventually his entire persona, as he becomes completely unraveled both physically and mentally.

The lines between work and home are not only blurred, they were possibly never there in the first place. Seamless shifts between scenes and the constant presence of Gilderoy’s reel to reel make the two locales blur together and start to influence each other in disturbing ways.

It’s not just the subject matter of the film that becomes disturbing; it’s the very environment in which Gilderoy is ensconced. There are two beacons of hope for Gilderoy: letters from home and the kind attention of Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), an actress on the film. When these lights are cruelly extinguished, the demarcation between The Equestrian Vortex and Gilderoy’s internal vortex of torment is erased.

Cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland lavishes attention on the technical aspects of the sound engineering process with intense, loving close-ups of the equipment. The editing, courtesy of Chris Dickens, is superb, not just when exploring the crevices of Gilderoy’s mind, but also when connecting the dots between the production log, voice work, and Foley effects being performed in the studio.

The ending of Berberian Sound Studio is open to interpretation. Nothing is fully resolved, which seems appropriate considering the subject matter. The horrors found in the film are not the kind you would expect from a giallo; they are subtle, oppressive, and all too real, making this a film about a horror film that literally comes out from the screen to scare you. Berberian Sound Studio is the giallo that never was, in more ways than one.

Berberian Sound Studio played at TIFF 2012 as part of the Vanguard Programme. The film screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox from Friday, August 2 through Thursday, August 8.

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