Movie Review: Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

Seen: On dvd on my projector set-up.

For one reason or another I kept missing this the few times it played near me, so I was glad to have a night off before Thanksgiving when I could finally watch it. Written and directed by Peter Strickland and set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio tells the uncanny tale of Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an uptight British sound designer who is invited to work on a low-budget horror film in Rome. His talent is obvious, and he sets out making squishy slasher noises with watermelons and lettuce, but he remains uncomfortable with the type of film he’s working on, having had more experience with nature documentaries and the like. Unfamiliar with the language and culture, he is unnerved by his over-friendly but often two-faced coworkers, and fears he will never actually be paid. In his isolation and confusion Gilderoy sinks further into his work, until reality and fiction become blurred.

Berberian Sound Studio first came to my attention through its truly impressive series of posters by Brandon Schaefer and Peter House. The visuals of the film itself certainly live up to its advertising, seeped in over-saturated reds and blues while the camera lingers lovingly over analog recording equipment. The narrative is a little muddled, with scenes beginning and ending in media res and a few dream sequences seamlessly blended in to the main events. Frankly, I found most of the film gripping, completely transfixed by the strange, grungy imagery and Jones’s bizarre performance, and of course the sound design porn. As Gilderoy becomes more affected by the giallo film the overall story becomes more and more disjointed, sputtering in its structure like a scratched record. I couldn’t really tell you exactly what happens, but I know I was totally into it.

What holds me back from all-out loving Berberian Sound Studio is its ending: it’s kind of missing one? It felt like Strickland had written himself into a dead end and wasn’t sure what he actually wanted to say with this film, if he wanted to resolve or explain matters, or make things worse or better. So the movie just… stops. I have no problem with ambiguous or unconventional endings, I’m not saying I need everything to make sense or for loose ends to be wrapped up neatly, but SOME sort of ending would have been nice. The pacing is so off at the end that I had no idea I was at the climax, and so when the credits rolled I wasn’t satisfied- the movie doesn’t feel finished. In a film that otherwise had me so engaged, it was really frustrating to walk away from it with this incomplete feeling. Definitely worth the watch, though, and I’d like to see it again on blu-ray when I get a chance so I can get the full audio/visual effect. Also I have to give mad props to the women voice actors in this movie, who do an impressive amount of screaming. Looks exhausting to me.


Pair This Movie With: The setting and premise reminded me a little of CQ, which would be a nice uplift after the dark tone of this film. Similarly there’s recent release In a World… which offers another look at sound on film, only it’s about voice acting instead of sound effects.

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