The Reel Deal
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“THE SOUND & THE FURY”
We’re used to thinking of film as a predominantly visual medium. In fact, the very name “movies” comes from a shortening of the term “moving pictures.” Since the late twenties though, there’s an important distinction between pictures and motion pictures besides merely the “motion,” and that is the simple fact that the latter come with sound. Since the advent of the “talkies,” we’ve been listening to motion pictures as much as we’ve been watching them. And, heck, even in the silent era, movies often came with sound, in the form of accompanying music. So there’s long been this added element with film. Though often overlooked as a crucial part of the cinematic experience, it is important to remember that the sound of a film can be as potentially evocative as the images themselves.
Case in point: Berberian Sound Studio, a new film by director Peter Strickland, which is horrifying without showing much horror, and gruesome without presenting any gore, and mostly because of his exquisite use of sound. In the film, the great actor Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British foley artist and sound engineer hired by an Italian director to help with the audio track for his new film The Equestrian Vortex. By all signifying markers, this film within a film is your standard 1970s Italian giallo film (a horror sub-genre often combining Hitchcockian suspense with the depiction of violent horrors, the invocation of supernatural forces, the inclusion of jarring music, the embracing of 70s-era stylized camerawork, and the insertion of liberal amounts of nudity/sex). Yet I have to say, “by all signifying markers,” because we never see much, if any, of the film on which they work. We hear plenty of it, but the visuals take a backseat to the sound.
And in the same way, as the visuals of the film within the film remain elusive, so too do elements of the film we are watching. That’s not to say Berberian Sound Studio isn’t visual, or isn’t as visually aware as it is aurally aware. The visuals are actually rather artful, and Strickland certainly has the eye of an auteur. Yet the usual things we get from a film are slightly more difficult to pin down in Berberian Sound Studio. Visual cues are missing or tweaked. Standard elements like narrative seem to give way to nonsense as the film transforms into a strange loop, not unlike an M. C. Escher drawing. It becomes a tale, like that famous Shakespeare line, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Well, not nothing perhaps, but no thing. It grows ambiguous, and eludes capture.
In an interview with Strickland over at Film Comment, the director explains: “Well, it’s almost the opposite of all films, isn’t it? Most films hide the mechanics, whereas with this one you don’t see the film at all, and all we see are the mechanics.” The plot is evasive, collapsing in on itself, as the film within the film and the actual film we’re watching begin to merge slowly and suspensefully.
Berberian Sound Studio is an Ouroboros of a movie, a cinema-serpent eating its own reel-tail. It’s as if Jorge Luis Borges had invented his own matryoshka doll in which the largest doll also somehow fit nicely back into the smallest doll. It’s a puzzle that grows more complicated the more you focus on it.
Toby Jones is the most perfect actor around which one could build an enigmatic world like this, and not merely because he’s a man of great talent and subtlety, but also because one couldn’t dream up a better face for Gilderoy than his. Jones’ facial features call to mind those of a cherubic child and a creepy killer, a face that feels simultaneously innocent and sinister, that asks for sympathy as it menaces you. As the film that we are watching (Berberian Sound Studio) and the film within the film that we are never privileged to see (The Equestrian Vortex) begin to cross-polinate, Strickland amps up the moodiness, embracing certain aesthetics from great auteurs like David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, and Alfred Hitchcock, while evoking (and recalibrating) a plethora of classic horror tropes.
At one point, early on in Berberian Sound Studio, when Gilderoy calls The Equestrian Vortex a “horror film,” the director within the film, named Santini, tells him never to call it that again. Santini claims that it is not a horror film, it is a “Santini film.” By the genre signifiers, of course, one could call Berberian Sound Studio a “horror film” as well, but it is and it isn’t. Much like it is and it isn’t many other things. In trying to analyze it, one can mention directors like Lynch and Hitchcock, as I have, and one can certainly also make comparisons to Brian DePalma’s Blow Out (the only other really compelling “soundman” flick that comes to mind), but these comparisons, though valid, only tell half the story. There’s a whole world left unseen in the film, a whole narrative hidden between the ellipses, drowned out by the incessant screaming and squashing of melons. In that way, it’s a movie unlike any other I’ve ever seen or heard. If you want to experience the most original horror/thriller I’ve seen in at least a decade, definitely check out Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. That said, I don’t really think of it as a horror/thriller film, in fact, I would try not to classify it at all. Or, perhaps, only classify it by mimicking Santini and saying: “It’s a Strickland film,” which will for the foreseeable future be a complimentary phrase.
Berberian Sound Studio is a film written and directed by Peter Strickland. It stars Toby Jones, Susanna Cappellaro, and Antonio Mancino. A sound engineer’s work for an Italian horror studio becomes a terrifying case of life imitating art.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of the UK Film Council
Design by Lulu Vottero
Film Still from Berberian Sound Studio, Photography Courtesy of the UK Film Council