‘Berberian Sound Studio’ Review
I spent the summers between my junior and senior years of college interning at an independent production company that specialized in schlocky horror movies. I worked as a post-production assistant, and when I wasn't running errands, I was sitting next to one of the editors, watching him cut. Immersing yourself in the raw footage of a horror movie for hours upon hours on end has a funny way of desensitizing you. Ghastly images of viscera and gore start to make you yawn. Bloodcurdling screams become white noise. It's not spooky. It's not fun. It's just a job.
'Berberian Sound Studio' is about a man who's having trouble making that leap from terror to tedium. He's been hired by an Italian production company to craft the sound mix for their latest horror film, a grisly tale of witches and torture named 'The Equestrian Vortex' (it's set at a horseback riding academy). The mixer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is an experienced professional but he's never worked on a horror movie before, and the graphic nature of 'Vortex's' content makes him uncomfortable. It doesn't seem to matter that he knows it's just a movie, or that without him and his legion of unsettling sound effects, the film would hardly qualify as scary at all. Something about it just upsets him.
What that something is, though, is left entirely to the audience's imagination. In a bold stroke, we never see a single frame of 'The Equestrian Vortex' beyond the entirety of its giallo-inflected opening titles (in an equally bold stroke, those are the only opening titles in 'Berberian Sound Studio,' suggesting a very thin line between the movie we're watching and the movie we're watching get made). Instead, director Peter Strickland's camera stays focused on the cramped quarters of the titular production facility, where Gilderoy creates all his eerie, messy, squishy effects (many, many watermelons were harmed in the making of his picture). Keeping our eyes on the creation of the sounds instead of their destination trains us to pay hyperclose attention to 'Berberian's' own soundtrack, to think like Gilderoy. You don't often read about sound editors in movie reviews, but let's make an exception here for Joakim Sundström, who does a superlative job designing 'Berberian's' complex layers of audio.
It's interesting to see (and hear) what analog sound recording used to look like, and to witness the less-than-glamorous world of low-budget film production. We typically take the director as the ultimate author of a film -- 'Berberian Sound Studio' suggests how enormous an impact a sound editor can have on the overall shape of a movie ('Equestrian Vortex's' director is rarely present in the editing room, and when he does show up, his barking dog constantly interrupts).
But beyond the inside baseball stuff about the movie biz, 'Berberian Sound Studio' is frustratingly inert, a character study about a man defined by his total lack of definition. The screenplay reveals little to nothing about Gilderoy's life before his arrival in Italy and doesn't provide much for him to do after he gets there except complain about a late paycheck and endure constant criticism from his standoffish co-workers. Jones is an interesting screen presence, and his rumpled face and sad eyes suit this schlub of a character, but even he can't manage to elevate this material above a minor curiosity and an interesting experiment in the manipulation of sound to tell a story. We don't see 'Equestrian Vortex' -- or much of anything else. At some point, the movie Gilderoy's editing begins to feel more real than the one we're actually watching.
'Berberian Sound Studio' premiered internationally on August 31, and debuted in the US at Fantastic Fest 2012.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’