Sunday, January 20, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

There's something awfully sinister about the Berberian Sound Studio. Walking through those eerily empty corridors and upon hearing some piercing screams coming from one of the recording studios, our gentlemanly but seemingly meek protagonist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) already seems ill at ease.

Nothing really happens at the outset, but from the first few frames, merely with the help of ambient sound, an enigmatic background score, a visibly disconcerted central character and a rather unwelcoming and rude desk secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), writer-director Peter Strickland already establishes a sense of foreboding. This quality of sufficiently dislocating a viewer from a state of composure via cinematic effects is what this excellent new British film, "Berberian Sound Studio" is all about.

It's the 1970s, as is evident from the paraphernalia lying around the front desk. The aforementioned Gilderoy is supposedly a highly revered Sound Engineer and Foley Artist, called upon by a famous but smug Italian director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to provide his services for his next, a horror slasher film of the giallo genre! Now anyone familiar with this genre knows that these sort of films are those crude, low-budget pictures high on the gore quotient, rife with ghastly images of torture, violence, blood splatter and sometimes sexual violence! Poor old Gilderoy, used to working on family friendly nature documentaries, is obviously taken aback!

Already somewhat apprehensive about the assignment, Gilderoy meets some more strange people in the studio, including the initially over-friendly but later rather condescending, foul-mouthed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) who clearly seems to have a disrespect for women, especially those in the industry. And then there's the flamboyant, ever-smiling director Santini who walks around with his dog, spreading cheer all around, but has a dark side to him..! It is only Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) who seems to take some genuine liking to Gilderoy and ominously hints that there's something fishy about the business in the studio!

As his job on the film begins, Gilderoy grows increasingly unnerved, thanks to the language barrier, a very different work culture, and more importantly, the frightening nature of his work that starts to take a toll on his frail psyche as he finds himself losing touch with reality and disappearing into an otherworldly nightmare...

"Berberian Sound Studio" is a very clever film. It can be classified as a psychological thriller that's a homage to the Italian giallo films and also the films of the 70s with an emphasis on analogue sound and magnetic tapes. It isn't a horror film per se, but it showcases the mechanics of the making of such cinema. It highlights the very essence of scare tactics that filmmakers usually employ. A lot of time is spent on giving us an educative tour of sound production in cinema. So while we don't actually see the film that Gilderoy is working on, we only see him create the sound for some barbaric acts that are part of this film! While we don't actually see any bloodletting or graphic violence happening, we still cringe in disgust, as some squishy melons are smashed to create an effect of a body falling from a height! We visualize terrible things just as some hard watermelons are chopped incessantly with a butcher's knife to sound like a human body being chopped or beheaded, and cabbages are stabbed to produce a realistic sound for a body being subjected to a knife attack multiple times! We shudder at the thought of even imagining anything as some tomato juice is blended to create the effect of a chainsaw at work and leaves from radishes are uprooted from the root to make us believe that some women on screen said to be witches are being subjected to torture by having their hair uprooted from their scalp!

Strickland's wise decision of not showing us what happens on screen and simply guiding us with the narration of some scenes and providing us the sound effects for the same leaves room for a lot of imagination, and that makes the whole experience even scarier. He shows us how sound plays a very important role in a horror film or any film that sets out to disturb its audiences. Thus, this film relies a lot on its sound design, one of the film's greatest assets, to put forth this point convincingly. There are some great visuals to behold, blended together with some fine sonic effects. There is a lot of attention to detail, specifically pertaining to the processes in the sound production department. Strickland's use of lighting is noteworthy, especially in the scenes shot in the vocal recording booths, or during the power cuts, or what seems to be Gilderoy's transition into a nightmare. Some finer moments like how Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozeph Cseres), the two sound artists go on to consume the melons that they chop for the sound, and promptly offer some to Gilderoy are sure to make you smile rather nervously!

Often deemed Lynchian, "Berberian Sound Studio" indeed does seem heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch. It is not just the meticulous sound design that is so evidently similar to that employed by David Lynch, but also the themes that reflect some of Lynch's recent work. Apart from the mystifying oddities of the screenplay, a la "Lost Highway", there are similarities to be found with "Mulholland Drive", specifically in the narrative aspects focusing on the dark side of the glamourous world of film-making and the morally corrupt brass who exploit their artists. Additionally worth noting is the repeated flashing of the red sign that reads "Silenzio"! There is also a reference to "Inland Empire" as there are similarities to be found with John Carpenter's highly underrated psychological horror "In the Mouth of Madness" in one terrifying scene towards the third act. The idea of a jittery, disturbed central character who slips away into a nightmarish situation is also similar to Lynch's "Eraserhead".

Film inspirations apart, "Berberian Sound Studio" has its own power of messing with the viewer's mind with its surreal, unsettling atmosphere, some intelligently written scenes which are outrageously bizarre, definitely capable of inducing a nervous chuckle and successfully disturbing the viewer through its modest 90 minutes length. Beneath its thriller exterior, there is a dark wit to be found in its subtle satirical notes. It is also brilliantly acted, especially by the lead actor Toby Jones who runs away with a classy performance. Peter Strickland is a director to look out for, for with "Berberian Sound Studio", which is only his second film, he has surely delivered a masterpiece.

For maximum effect, watch alone, with a pair of headphones on.

Score: 10/10

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