Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #178
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 31 August 2012 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Psychological Study
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Running Time: 932 minutes
Director: Peter Strickland
Producers: Mary Burke, Keith Griffiths
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland
Special Effects: Andy Lowe
Editing: Chris Dickens
Studios: Warp X, Illuminations Films
Distributors: Artificial Eye, Film 4, IFC Midnight
Stars: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore LI Causi, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Guido Adorni, Lara Parmiani, Jozef Cseres, Pal Toth, Katalin Ladik, Jean-Michael van Schouwburg
Suggested Audio Candy
Broadcast “The Equestrian Vortex”
Every once in a while a film emerges which totally defies categorization. Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is one such movie. I’m going to be frank right from the offset, if you are seeking entertainment then you have come to the wrong place. If you like your narrative structured and explanatory then you are shit out of luck also. If however, you are looking for an intense psychological character study which gnaws at you from the inside out incessantly like a famished hamster then come on in as Strickland’s film is a truly affecting piece of cinema.
Shot entirely in the United Kingdom, it follows foley artist Gilderoy (the utterly arresting Toby Jones) who begins work at an Italian sound studio as engineer, ill-prepared for the will-sapping treatment which awaits him. Expecting the feature to be about harmless ponies, he is dismayed to learn that The Equestrian Vortex is actually a misogynistic Giallo which gives a non-fictional account of Italian Catholic witch trials. To add insult to injury, he has a reimbursement dispute to deal with on arrival as well as the film’s megalomaniac producer to contend with and a director who bizarrely won’t admit to them even making a horror movie.
Gilderoy gets to work on creating sound effects and mixing voice-overs from disgruntled session artists, despite never being shown any cut of the film. We are treated to a nightmarish opening title sequence; rotascoped satanic imagery in deep red and black accompanied with pulsating pianos and contorted drum arrangements. This jarring audio from this hellish interlude comes courtesy of WARP Records’ Broadcast and is reminiscent of Goblin’s lurid symphonies of yesteryear.
There are a number of influences for Berberian Sound Studio’s distinctive style and Strickland’s film wears them proudly on its sleeve. There are shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and, of course, the great Suspiria. Indeed, it gives a pretty accurate reenactment of how the Italians produced their films back then as the sound effects were invariably added post-shoot. The manner in which these bytes are obtained is the source of much dark humor as Gilderoy gets creative with his five-a-day, massacring all manner of cabbages, courgettes and the like to attain authenticity.
It is the epitome of slow-burn and you begin to feel just as caged as the main protagonist. Ensnared in an increasingly oppressive environment and surrounded by deeply unsympathetic characters, he begins to question his sanity and it fast becomes a case of life imitating art. Strickland ensures that we feel just as discombobulated, questioning whether the events that befall our lead are, in fact, real or just a pigment of his fast-clouding imagination. Jones plays the gentle Englishman to perfection and he sucks up much of the treatment he receives, attempting not to let it affect his work when you can clearly see that he is beginning to lose the last of his marbles.
Sound evidently plays a major role in building the tension and here is a piece of art which is at its most effective when the shrill screams and foreboding sound bytes are in full flow. They are as erratic as the story arc and deeply unsettling to the viewer increasingly throughout as we chart Gilderoy’s mental decline. Shrieks, wails, moans and groans begin to bleed through from the recording booth and are used to great effect. Indeed, Berberian Sound Studio may well feature the most effective use of sound in a horror film for many years and it is here that his film leaves its interminable stain on your psyche. This is a full-on sensory assault thus suitable audio settings become invaluable to your overall experience. By the time the reel melts down in a direct nod towards Ingmar Bergman our defenses have too.
As we grind towards a particularly left-field conclusion, reality is shown with more tenuousness and the conceptual bears more plausibility, with one scene involving Gilderoy watching himself on-screen dubbed in Italian lending itself perfectly to leading us further into the black Berberian abyss. The word Silenzio flashes on-screen to subliminally pound our senses and editor Chris Dickens punctuates with such sublime brilliance that it remains as seamless as it is all-over-the-shop. Everything’s measured, Strickland is disinterested in tidy conclusions and instead prefers to leave the whole thing down to individual interpretation.
This is a bold move and many will feel a disconnect when experiencing this for the first time but, if you allow it to seep beneath your pelt and marinade some, then you will be armed with the ability to truly play the scenario out in your mind and dot the i’s yourselves. It is nigh-on impossible to openly recommend Berberian Sound Studio regardless of how quietly brilliant a film it is as it will alienate many with its perceivable pretentiousness. However, ignore at your peril if you were groomed on Italian Giallo or possess an over-active imagination, Strickland’s film may well leave you as railroaded as its hapless protagonist and, should those portentous sound bytes bleed into your waking phantasms, then it’s very much job done.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 0/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: No grue requisite here. Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite movies and a chief reason for that is the palpable dread which hangs in the air throughout. Strickland uses the same technique and those of a certain disposition will really feel the pinch. It features absolutely no grue but the sound of splitting watermelons will be tainted evermore after viewing, believe me. As for the gloriously macabre opening credits, they play out in my head on incessant loop even now.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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