If you’re a horror enthusiast or audiophile of any serious pedigree, then Berberian Sound Studio would appear, on paper, to be right up your alley. Did you used to sit at home listening to BBC sound effects records? Can you list every significant giallo production in chronological order? Would you debate what counts as significant? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ then Peter Strickland’s second feature film probably sounds like a dream come true. It certainly sounded good to me.
It follows the troubled experiences that a mild-mannered English sound artist encounters when working on an Italian horror film in the late 60s/early 70s. It begins as a quaint, pleasing fish-out-of-water story, as Gilderoy (Toby Jones) struggles with the language barrier, only to be flummoxed further by cultural differences and his own distaste for the film he has been employed to work on. As things progress, however, Gilderoy’s over-exposure to the grim images clearly begins to have an effect on him, and the film moves into the vaguer territories of the nightmarish psychological thriller.
First and foremost, it’s lovely to see Jones in a leading role. Fuddy-duddy Gilderoy isn’t a giant leap for him – this quiet, cardigan sporting meticulous-type comes so effortlessly to Jones as to appear like some alter-ego or extension of self. He fits the character like a glove. And whilst the character in question balks at any serious emoting, Jones manages to make him sympathetic and human. Sweet even.
Secondly, Strickland’s film looks divine. Filled with sumptuously deep blacks and warm browns, he evokes a particular era stylishly and efficiently. Not only that but he clearly delights in the small things, and many of the film’s greatest visual pleasures come from drifting close-ups of objects. His investment in minutiae throws up countless interesting compositions.
So far, so good. But as Gilderoy becomes lost in a downward spiral of doubt, and as the ‘real’ begins to slip from his fingers, Strickland’s film loses focus where it ought to have tightened. The narrative takes us down blind alleys which frequently dead-end abruptly. This can be a neat trick when used judiciously, but Berberian Sound Studio repeats it too often. Having been led into a trap, the audience snaps back only to find the newly defined ‘real’ world just as uncertain. And it happens again and again until it becomes monotonous, even dull. Now, this may effectively convey Gilderoy’s psychological crisis, but it also tests patience
It’s a shame, because a number of these ‘surreal’ sequences work terrifically, especially one in which Gilderoy is awoken in the night by a horror movie scenario, only to find himself back in the studio watching his own nightmare projected in front of his very eyes… but like so many of the film’s deviations, it goes nowhere.
Berberian Sound Studio unfortunately also suffers due to its own enforced claustrophobia. 95% of the movie takes place within the titular studio, and as beautiful a set as it is, it does become rather over-familiar. Likewise, there are only so many recordings and re-recordings of screams that one can be subjected to before the urge to scream becomes infectious. The leisurely pace of proceedings, combined with this grinding repetition makes Berberian Sound Studio feel far longer than its 90 minute runtime.
Strickland wisely sprinkles his film with some humour, and Antonio Mancino puts in a charismatic turn as Italian director Santini. I was also intrigued by the way in which the horror film in question is never actually seen, yet much of its storyline and graphic content is inferred through sparse dialogue and foley effects. A wise choice cleverly orchestrated. And of course the sound is impressive throughout.
Yet Berberian Sound Studio ultimately let me down. I felt an overwhelming sense that so much slight-of-hand was being used simply to mask a paucity of story. The end effect is like watching a rat in a maze when there’s no cheese to be found. It’s all well and good taking an audience on a journey, even a twisting and perilous one, but we do rather appreciate a destination. This may seem hypocritical of me a week after I gave Holy Motors a resounding five out of five. But that film captivated me with its oddities, where Berberian Sound Studio has only tested me.