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Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Director: Peter Strickland

review by J.C. Hartley

Spoiler alert!
There's a nice quote from Douglas Adams, in his book The Salmon Of Doubt, and it relates to reactions to technologies:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.

It's funny because it's true, and I like it because I can relate it to cultural output too, be it art, music, literature and those narratives that scroll on TV and in the cinema. I've noted elsewhere that my late mother had difficulty 'reading' some narrative devices employed in plays and films, to show, for example, the passage of time, or events that have occurred in the past. The 'flashback' could be the source of some confusion. My mother's confusion often expressed itself as irritation and annoyance with the 'so-called intellectuals' who utilised non-linear narrative devices. Sometimes of course she just didn't like stuff.

I'm not a big fan of modern horror. I grew up with Hammer on late-night TV, and the output of that studio, for gentlemen of mid-to-late middle-age, is complicatedly mixed up with memories of puberty and a lasting adolescent interest in cleavage. It is surprising that such associations did not do more lasting damage to the ability to forge stable relationships. And of course one of the charges laid at the door of horror is that of its negative influence, that at the least it creates a dulling of sensitivity to the suffering of others, and at worst it might sponsor the desire, in those that way inclined, to inflict suffering upon others.

I said I am not among modern horror's fans, but I do feel obliged to keep abreast of those films in that genre that have, for whatever reason, caught my attention. Consequently I caught Ben Wheatley's excellent Kill List in 2011, and now I've caught up with last year's Berberian Sound Studio from another British director Peter Strickland.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives in Italy at the Berberian Sound Studio to ply his skills as a foley artist, applying sound effects post-production to the giallo film 'The Equestrian Vortex'. Not really knowing what to expect, he makes the faux pas of telling the pretentious director Santini that he has never worked on a horror film before. One of the actresses asks him if he realises why he has been asked to work on the film. There is more to this than meets the eye; or is there really?

Gilderoy does not speak Italian; his new colleagues might be talking about him; Jones' face creases with apprehensive concern as conversations from which he is excluded take place in front of him. "What did she say?" The producer Francesco is patronising, jealous, condescending, and increasingly a bully. Gilderoy cannot get his expenses for his flight to Italy; the receptionist at the studio is rude and obstructive. Gilderoy's attempts to get his money, his occasional criticisms of the facilities, his questions about the film, are turned back upon him by Francesco, they are examples of his English rudeness.

The viewer is troubled, something seems to be planned for Gilderoy, we are apprehensive for him. The film seems to conform to those narratives where the innocent, literally abroad here, has been lured into a situation where they are to become the victim of some horrible rite.

But what is really happening? A foley artist, whose usual medium is kids' TV, and the bucolic documentary, a clip of which we are shown in an interlude shocking in its banality, is summoned to work on a film which he imagines to be something to do with horse-riding. He has clearly done no research on the studio or the director, this is the 1970s but one would only have to ask. Why has he left his comfort-zone, for the opportunity to work in film?

The film in question is obviously a riff on Dario Argento's Suspiria, with menaced girls in some sort of academy, discovering that the place is built on a mass grave for witches tortured by the church. The witches are resurrected and take their revenge but Gilderoy must add sound effects to scenes of their torture, stabbing cabbages, ripping radishes from their stalks, smashing and mutilating fruit and vegetables, while staring at the projected images we never see.

He complains to Francesco "I can't do this stuff," but Francesco is dismissive, they are both in the business; they both know it is all make-believe. How can Gilderoy object to the images when he knows it is all pretence, is he Gilderoy not adding to the layers of pretence with his foley work? And Santini reassures him, he cares about the women who suffered, he is only seeking to tell the truth about the torture, and to tell the truth he must show the full extent of the atrocities.

We realise the film is affecting Gilderoy. He is too gentle a soul and would not hurt a fly, or indeed the spider he plays with in his bed-sit room, while he edits the reel-to-reel effects tapes in his lonely evenings. Liberating the said spider through his bedroom window he looks up and out and seems to see something. He receives a letter from home, some nesting birds are due to hatch in his garden, even as the camera scrolls down the text of the letter we know, before it ever reaches the bottom of the page, that the letter is from his mother, not a wife. Later, as part of his disintegration, Gilderoy receives another letter, his mother has found the hatchlings massacred, their heads torn from their bodies, she concludes that it must have been the magpies.

Gilderoy does disintegrate. Something tries to get into his room. He exits through a cupboard, or a wardrobe, and finds himself walking over leaves, but this is no autumnal Narnia, he is back in the studio. Encouraged to be aggressive in pursuit of his unpaid expenses he accosts Luigi of accounts, on the telephone, but is told that there is no record of his flight to Italy. Is he even here? His frame of reference rips and tears in a lurid loop; he is attacked by a witch with a knife and stabs her to death, then views the footage on the screen.

One of the actresses, sexually assaulted by Santini, sabotages her voice-tapes, and Gilderoy, now a shambling figure, shuffles through coils of magnetic tape spilling from his machines. A new actress is hired, picked out by Santini for her looks not for her ability; Francesco complains that Santini is directing with his prick. When she continually fails at her speech, Francesco commands the now dapper Gilderoy to kick her ass and make her cry. Gilderoy says there is a simpler way: he feeds noise through her head-phones until the actress is reduced to a weeping wreck. Francesco looks at Gilderoy with new respect, while the latter considers us.

On one level Berberian Sound Studio is simple enough. A na´ve man is corrupted by exposure to the depiction on-screen of violent sadism. In Italian and English, the soundtrack of the film adds to our sense of Gilderoy's alienation. What is being said, and is it about him? I wondered if this sense of dislocation would be reduced for an Italian speaker. At one point, accepting a chocolate, Gilderoy says 'Grazie' as one would; Francesco says (in Italian) that he is glad that Gilderoy's Italian is improving. This occurs early in the film. How long is Gilderoy in Italy?

Later Francesco compliments Gilderoy's abilities explaining (in Italian) that he can make a light-bulb sound like a UFO, whereupon Gilderoy unbidden performs his party-piece. One of the actresses asks if Gilderoy can make the sound of bats but this has to be translated for him. Why can Gilderoy sometimes understand Italian and at other times not? By the end of the film Gilderoy speaks fluent Italian, some earlier footage is replayed, and our perception of it is transformed with the new soundtrack.

As the film deconstructs, I started to deconstruct it myself, playing the film with subtitles. The simple story, whereby a technician with the soul of an artist finds his environment reflecting the tropes of the horror film he is exposed to, spills out into a greater contemplation of film itself and the audience's complicity in the little deceit that underpins it.

This film has divided opinion, the critics tend to love it, but some audiences have seen it as pretentious and rather less than the sum of its parts. Citizen Kane, the film that topped the critics' list as the greatest film ever made for so long, often seemed to hold that position because it ticked so many boxes in the evolution of film theory. Auteur theory, yes Orson Welles was one of the great auteurs; genre theory, yes the film mashes up horror (those opening credits of Kane's mansion), melodrama, noir; technical innovation, yes without the advances in lighting technology cinematographer Gregg Toland's evocative deep-focus shots would not have been possible; and so on.

Critics loved Citizen Kane, but it is a difficult film and I'm not sure audiences would consistently have voted it as their favourite night out at the movies. I'm not comparing Berberian Sound Studio to it, but I wonder if the professional critical reaction has been due to the fact that it is so obviously a film about filmmaking? Francesco's remark that Gilderoy is over-reacting to what he sees on the screen is an attempt to deconstruct the process.

Filmmaking is all about deceit, it is based on a deceit within a myth, be it persistence of vision, phi phenomenon or beta movement. We accept a linear narrative on-screen, ignoring the cutting and editing that laces that narrative together, we accept that the speech we hear issues from the moving lips we see, we are unaware of the blocking, the set-ups, and mise-en-scène that have painstakingly constructed what we are viewing. Strickland's film plays with our perception of what a horror film should be, builds upon our anticipation based upon the usual tropes, clearly shows us the props behind the conjuring trick and then savagely smashes the bottle and glass like Tommy Cooper having a break-down. I don't know whether it was interest or annoyance that drove me to subtitles but the film got under my skin and not necessarily in a good way.

Here are some of the questions I ended up asking. Is Gilderoy actually editing a film in Italy or is he in an institution recovering from a breakdown after editing a film in Italy? Are the bed-sit scenes concurrent with the studio scenes or do the former occur later? When Gilderoy reads the letter about the slaughter of the nestlings, where is he? The bed does not look like the one in his bed-sit. Has Gilderoy slaughtered the nestlings? Does the fight with the witch mean Gilderoy has killed his mother? Have I allowed myself to be sucked into a pretentious analysis of a film that quite frankly left me feeling a bit short-changed?

In any event I would offer that while it is interesting this film is somewhat less than the great British horror that has been suggested in some quarters. It may be that the pretence that lies behind filmmaking, and is clearly sign-posted by Strickland, has spilled over into pretentiousness in its reception. The technical challenge set for himself by the director has perhaps been misinterpreted. Maybe I've just read too much into the whole thing. One thing is for certain, the film would not succeed on any level but for the absolutely brilliant central performance by Toby Jones.

Berberian Sound Studio DVD




are you listening?




screaming actress




Toby Jones




Berberian Sound Studio poster






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