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Berberian Sound Studio
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by Jay Seaver

"The sound of creepy atmosphere."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: "Berberian Sound Studio" brought a film called "Amer" to mind, even though the two are spectacularly different in the way they pay tribute to Italian giallo movies. What they have in common is a deep affection for the genre, a remarkable attention to detail, and an incredible ability to create atmosphere from sound and a barely suggested plot. This movie just takes those qualities into post-production.

Post-production on a film called "The Equestrian Vortex", to be specific. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an English audio engineer, has been hired to record and mix the movie's soundtrack, but he didn't quite know what he was getting into - aside from the bloody, violent content of the script taking him by surprise, he's a quiet Englishman surrounded by brash Italians; he doesn't speak the local language; and he's having a hard time finding someone to reimburse him for his airfare. Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) switches from ingratiating to domineering at the drop of a hat, and the director who specifically requested him is mostly absent and eccentric when he is around. The closest thing he finds to a friend is Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), one of the actresses dubbing the film, though some of the other men on set claim she's trouble.

If I were producing next year's Academy Awards, I'd look into using clips from this movie to illustrate just what is meant by Sound Editing and Sound Mixing; a fair amount of time is spent on showing how Gilderoy and his colleagues go about their work, whether it be smashing vegetables to approximate the sounds of the human body being abused, carefully raising and lowering sound levels to just so, and watching women scream their hearts out while standing in a booth with nothing to react to. It's great fun to watch for those who like to see how things work and how movies are made, but the way writer/director Peter Strickland uses this environment to tell the story is kind of brilliant. Certainly, it's dark and claustrophobic and kind of run-down; that's kind of a given. But it's Gilderoy that grabs the attention; Jones and Strickland let us get to know the man by how he goes about his work, usually separated from the girl he may fancy by glass. The machines he uses are analog, mechanical things, an extension of his actions in the way that digital interfaces can only approximate, and the instinctive way he is able to manipulate them stands in stark contrast to how nervous he is in his interaction with the other people.

Of course, it's not just the situations that he's in that make Jones's performance so outstanding. The way he speaks and especially his body language is always note-perfect; he does what seems like a thousand variations on discomfort, and always the exact best one for the moment. Even more, he makes sure there's something a little sinister to Gilderoy as he does start to fit in, as though loosening up has cost him a piece of his soul. It's dominating for being such a quiet, internal bit of acting; the rest of the cast must be measured on how they complement him. They do so well enough, Fatma Mohamed in particular having a nice thing going where she's able to make Silvia centered even if she is potentially passionate and under-appreciated, and Cosimo Fusco does the thing where Francesco goes from amusingly insincere to just mean in a second quite well indeed.

The film is thick with atmosphere, although it may not always seem so. The thing Strickland does that's most risky - though it pays off well - is to never show The Equestrian Vortex to the audience. Well, that's not entirely true; he does show the animated opening titles to get the brain associating with the right kind of movie. After that, the characters are all reacting to something being screened that we can't see, and the filmmakers work that well; the dialog and what plot can be pieced together is just over-the-top enough to draw a laugh, but describes things that we can believe make Gilderoy uneasy. Similarly, even though we can see Gilderoy and the rest of the group creating sound effects, they can still register as a decapitation rather a head of lettuce being cut in half when we're looking elsewhere. It taps into how our imagination isn't necessarily rational. So does the last act; we get further and further into Gilderoy's head and while initially the surrealism is obviously unreal, things seem to get closer and closer to life without becoming any less strange.

As a result, the dark, moody "Berberian Sound Studio" can certainly feel like the sort of horror movie Gilderoy is working on without having to take on its surface characteristics. After all, those movies stick in their head as much for how they make one feel as the gallons of fake blood used, and while this one may not have a lot of red, it makes us feel wrong in all the right ways.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24203&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/11/13 01:07:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 European Union Film Festival For more in the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2013 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/23/16 Langano Pure garbage. One of the worst movies ever made. Comparing this crap to Lynch is a joke. 1 stars
6/12/15 Loop Has its moments... 3 stars
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  14-Jun-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2013

  31-Aug-2012 (15)

  14-Jun-2013 (M)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2013

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