MRR Review: "Berberian Sound Studio"

Photo Credit: IFC Films

MRR Review: "Berberian Sound Studio"

-- Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: 14 June, 2013
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Genre: Drama/Horror/Thriller

Traveling to a foreign country for work has its challenges, especially if the traveler in question has been deceived about the work. Such is the story of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound engineer who has been hired to do work on a film about horses in "Berberian Sound Studio," a mind-bending thriller with enough drama and horror to please fans of all three genres.

Gilderoy arrives in Italy to a cool welcome from receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), which should have been his first clue that trouble was on the horizon. She couldn't seem to care less about him or his work on the soundtrack to "The Equestrian Vortex"- a movie about horses. Gilderoy believes he is to create the soundtrack, get reimbursed for his travel expenses plus his work fee, and then return to England. Nothing happens quite as he expects since the director Santini (Antonio Mancino) and producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) haven't exactly been forthcoming with him about the subject matter of the film. It isn't actually about horses; it is about a girl who used to ride horses who is now the subject of torture in a giallo, a word locals use for a bloody, exploitative horror film made on a shoestring budget.

Gilderoy is unnerved by the sounds he is forced to make for the soundtrack of the film. He sticks knives into heads of cabbage to make stabbing sounds, smashes watermelons to simulate a head being cracked, and records women in booths making blood-curdling screams. It all begins to tax his nerves, causing him to lose his grip on reality. The fact that he is isolated and doesn't speak Italian only feeds his paranoia, causing him to think that things happening in the film are happening to him in real life. Soon, he can't discern the difference between the movie and his life, causing him to behave erratically. After a while, the erratic behavior becomes downright dangerous for all involved, putting lives in peril.

There is a certain satisfaction to be had when destroying things. The smashing of objects and the resulting sound can be quite cathartic and is likely even more fun when getting paid to do all that smashing. Unfortunately, Gilderoy is so aghast almost from the minute he enters the studio that the pleasure he could have indulged in when creating the soundtrack seems lost on him for the most part. Thankfully, the audience still gets to see and hear the surprising satisfaction of destroyed produce and other items, resulting in several scenes that would make the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher proud. The studio looks like the result of a food fight at a farmer's market, but it is fun to watch.

Since the film is set in the 1970s, the movie technology that is so prevalent today was either in its infancy or hadn't been invented yet. This forces director Peter Strickland to use the technology that was available at the time, meaning he couldn't rely on heavy computer-generated sounds like a modern director would. It allows the audience to get a behind-the-scenes peek at what filmmaking was like at that time, which is quite different from what one might expect. As the film being made is something of a slasher film, it has several unique and horrifying sounds that have to be captured by Gilderoy, such as a smashed skull or a severed limb. Watching as these sounds get made in the studio using fruits and vegetables is a bit like watching sausage get made yet it's fascinating all the same.

The film-within-a-film trope has been done before, but rarely is it this thrilling. There are directors who are content to keep using the same cliché over and over without offering anything new, and then there are directors such as Strickland who takes those tropes and turn them on their heads. Since he wrote the screenplay and directed the film, he gets the lion's share of the credit for the success of the film. Some credit should also go to Jones, who turns in a nuanced performance as Gilderoy, allowing the audience to see his slow unraveling and decent into possible madness. It's akin to a train wreck the audience is unable to stop watching, nor will they want to. The film was lauded by audiences and critics alike when it hit the 2012 Edinburgh Film Festival and for good reason-it is a layered thriller that uniquely takes standard movie fare and makes it fresh and original. It's highly entertaining stuff that more than deserves the worldwide release it is finally getting nearly a year after its premiere.

Rating: 3 out of 5