Monday, 24 September 2012

FILM REVIEW: Berberian Sound Studio

The paranoia and nightmares of alienation manifest brilliantly in Peter Strickland's second feature film Berberian Sound Studio, starring Toby Jones and set in a 1970s Italian giallo production. The film has been earning rave reviews since its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, and I finally got to see it this weekend after weeks of anticipation... and I have mixed feelings about its 'genius'.

Gilderoy (Jones), the quintessential middle aged polite Englishman, turns up at an Italian film studio where he has been hired as the sound engineer for a new project by the director Santini. Unbeknownst to Gilderoy, who has a background of working on children's TV programmes and nature films set in his own childhood home of Surrey, he has accepted the job on a giallo film - a pulpy fantastical horror film (think Argento) about a horse riding academy cursed by ancient witchcraft called The Equestrian Vortex (there's a great opening scene where we get the credits for Berberian Sound Studio, and then the giallo film - a film within a film). Thrust into a world where he is surrounded by erratic, often angry co-workers including Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who speak a different language to him and have no desire to familiarise Gilderoy, he feels uneasy and lost, emotions which are only perpetuated by the claustrophobia of the film's intense and chilling subject matter. His only moments of comfort are reading the letters he receives from his mother telling him about life back home, and a fledgling friendship with the film's lead actress Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro). But after her departure from the film following sexual harassment from the director, Gilderoy's psyche really begins to deteriorate, giving way to frightening dreams and hallucinations which put him inside the film he's working on.

The first hour is gripping, though very little happens besides watching the making of the film from Gilderoy's perspective (we never see any of the scenes, just the dialogue spoken by the actors and the sound effects to go with the action) and his timid attempts to try and get a reimbursement on his plane ticket. It's so effective in detailing the estrangement he feels in the production, to the people around him and to the film's graphic content. It's an understated and thoroughly convincing slide into madness - and who wouldn't go a little crazy with having no one to speak to practically all day and having your every waking moment consumed by blood curdling screams, deathly whispers and frightening images? To us, the audience, it's actually pretty amusing at times - the girls wandering in poultry tunnels, a 'dangerously aroused goblin' stalking the dormitory - and to the Italian cast and crew working on the film, it's just another day at the office - it's normal. They joke around, indulge in chocolates and cocktails and have the hypocritical and confusing air of not taking it seriously, but at the same time taking it very seriously indeed, and criticising Gilderoy anytime he offers up an opinion on the film. You can see why to a repressed, passive man how this would unsettle and disorientate you to the point of delusion. There's a scene halfway through where Gilderoy is being forced to do the foley effects for burning a witch (sizzling oil) when he freezes and tells Francesco he thinks he should go home - after the Producer reprimands him and tells him to be professional, the director Santini corners him (and hilariously feeds him a grape, in my best force feed scene of the year) and asks him, "why do you want to escape?" Those words came back to me in the film's overblown climax, as Veronica leaves the film mid-way through production and destroys all her reels of footage, leaving Santini and Francesco to audition for a replacement actress - who then also leaves. How can Gilderoy escape when the film can never finish?

As well as setting up the menace and the dread masterfully, Strickland is also the only director who could make a cabbage look so frightening. A long, close-up shot of its veiny leaves was so unsettling - as was the continued shots of the vegetables used for stabbing, pulling out hair, bodies hitting the ground, mutilation, just rotting on the ground: decaying just as Gilderoy's mindset is decaying. There's a constant feeling that everyone is against him - from the other technician's anger at him 'messing around with his faders', to the unrelenting misery and annoyance he receives from the studio's receptionist Elena. Yet there is a beautiful scene, probably my favourite of the film, where just once Gilderoy manages to captivate his co-workers and lead them to adore him: when there is a power cut on set and the place is lit with candles, he shows them how you can make a UFO out of a light bulb. They are so transfixed, but in an instant the power comes back on and the spell is broken as everyone goes back to work. That feeling of belonging is so fleeting, it seems even more dangerous for Gilderoy's fragile emotions.

Toby Jones gives a great central performance here - he is able to carry each stage of Gilderoy's decline with such resolve. When he gets mad you can feel the frustration in him, when he slumps over the desk you feel his apathy, when he stares at the camera you can feel his unbalance. But the humour is there too - more than a couple of times I felt a slight hint of Rowan Atkinson about him - a bumbling Englishman making a show of himself amongst an offhand elite.

But - argh! The final half an hour was just a mess, and a direction Strickland takes too OTT. It starts with Gilderoy furious at the finance department for the delay with his ticket receipt, when they tell him "there was no flight from England on that day." And then the dreams of being attacked in his bedroom at night by intruders, with similar nightmare scenarios from The Equestrian Vortex - a witch coming at him in bed with a knife. And then suddenly he is speaking fluent Italian (albeit dubbed, which was a nice touch), and tormenting the actresses, and the film reel burns into the film he was working on before about the English countryside... it's all amounting to one thing: this is all inside Gilderoy's head.

But no, no, NO! I refuse to believe this is one of those films with a clever underlying narrative that will be revealed on further watches (though I'm all for watching it again). The ending will not make sense in retrospect - perhaps if you fill your brain with theories from the Internet and then attempt to mould them into a re-watch you will find satisfaction, but based on repeat viewings alone I just feel the end descends into nonsense. Why oh why did Strickland not play this straight? Katalin Varga is so strong because it is simple, effective and its bleakness comes from the tragic vengeance and demise of the titular character. It is understated and linear, and powerful in its nuances. Its frustrating because I can see a perfectly chilling ending to Berberian Sound Studio, with the horror escalating to Gilderoy's filmic night terrors and being so clever to use the devices Strickland has educated us in - foley, sound design, fading - to Gilderoy's end. I loved the witch scene - it's so believable that the world of the film would start to penetrate your subconscious, and choosing to omit any sound from the attack just added to the disjointedness and disorientation of his world. Why include the odd scenes after ward, why the Lynchian tendencies? I've read arguments that Gilderoy was mad before he even started working on the film, that perhaps he was full on Norman Bates and had killed his mother, and was writing letters to himself - that would mean the film's infatuation with violence against women is substantiated. But Berberian was strong enough alone not to have these complexities and other layers which lead to IMDB theories - I just wish the director had dialled it down towards the end.

Still one of the best British films in recent years, Berberian Sound Studio is astonishingly good for its concept and execution - at least Strickland won't have any trouble funding further projects. But only two thirds a great film - the climax is just too opaque to hail it a classic.

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