Peter Strickland‘s Berberian Sound Studio feels desperate to convince the audience that something is happening. Events appear secondary to one man’s descendant into madness despite not having a compelling reason to descend into madness. It’s a movie where the greatest conflict involves travel reimbursement. Fans of giallo cinema might find a fun correlation between the plot and the setting, but for outsiders, it’s a film where the striking direction attempts to give voice a feeble character and story by screaming.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a sound mixer who has flown into Italy to work on a low-budget Italian horror film. Or as the pretentious director Santini (Antonio Mancino) corrects the hapless Gilderoy, “This is not a horror film. This is a Santini film!” Whatever they want to call it, Gilderoy’s attempt for a change of pace leaves him woefully out of his depth. His timid persona is no match for the aggressive Italian personalities, the unprofessional conditions, or the ugliness of the movie. His constitution is too weak for his environment, and he slowly starts to lose the line between reality and fiction.
Berberian Sound Studio‘s greatest strength is its passion. Everyone involved with the giallo picture are absolutely committed to the art of what they’re doing. We never see the movie they’re working on; we only hear the film, and despite the awful dialogue, the ridiculous plot, and brutal-sounding gore, the characters take their work seriously. Strickland clearly has a deep admiration for the professions of sound design, because he spends a third of the movie showing how it works. But playing ominous music over close-ups of charts doesn’t make the movie more intense. It makes it seem like he’s trying to make up for the lack of an interesting story.
I love seeing Gilderoy’s passion, and Jones is absolutely convincing as a scared little man who’s consumed by his work, but there’s nothing noteworthy about what Gilderoy’s doing on this job. It’s a gig working on a forgettable picture. He may not be used to the genre, but everything we gather from the sound design doesn’t make it seem like Santini’s picture is particularly transformative. The cast and crew may be convinced that they’re working on something special, but the dialogue in the movie is played for laughs, so how we can share in their conviction?
Gilderoy also never seems so deluded to be delusional even though Strickland wants to meddle with the character’s sanity. The sound mixer just seems lost, and his only real conflict is being stuck in a Kafkaesque loop of trying to find out who will reimburse him for his flight from London. He’s working with unprofessional people, but that’s no reason to lose his mind over it.
Hopefully, Strickland will write a script worthy of his directorial ambitions (and perhaps he already has; I haven’t seen his previous feature or his two short films). Nicholas D. Knowland‘s cinematography is gorgeous, the sound design is (appropriately) brilliant, and everything wraps together to convey the sense of a claustrophobic thriller. But a sense isn’t the same as a reality, and the reality of Berberian Sound Studio is a tension that can be dismissed with a deep breath.
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