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Berberian Sound Studio

December 11, 2013

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Director: Peter Strickland
Actors: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino

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Synopsis: Dowdy English sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), heads to the Berberian Studio in Rome to work on an Italian giallo film. His gentle sensibility soon becomes frayed by the pulpy material he’s working on and the difficult relationships he has with his co-workers.

Review: This is a real cinephile’s delight – with Peter Strickland almost gorging on the four cinematic elements of sound (quite literally), cinematography, editing and mise en scène – as well as offering a more conventional pleasure as a gripping genre picture of growing unease and borderline psychological horror.

Of course, the film’s plot hook of a sound engineer going to work on an Italian giallo movie in the ’70s is rife with a ripeness that Strickland mines both in the obvious (the black humour scenes of Gilderoy trying to affect the sounds of extreme gore through means such as smashing melons, stabbing cabbages, pulling the ends off carrots, burning fat in a saucepan) and the more oblique (part of the success of imaginative sound design in film – think of Bresson and Lynch – is in its complete withdrawal, and Strickland incorporates this magnificently, especially in the bravura silent bedroom scene when Gilderoy appears to be under attack by a sinister assailant).

As much as the discourse on sound though, equally impressive is how Strickland edits the film. One of the keys to its pungent atmosphere and growing air of unease is how all the action is entirely subterranean. Gilderoy never seems to leave the dungeon-like environs of the studio, and Strickland experiments with clever fades to black and zooming in on the minutiae of the recording apparatus to show the monotonous continuity of Gilderoy’s immersion in his giallo film’s sound design. Gilderoy is also not given any other outlet bar the sound recording; it’s not even entirely clear whether Gilderoy sleeps in the studio or in some dingy hotel somewhere.

At the centre of all Strickland’s beautiful technique is Toby Jones, and what a clever piece of casting that is. Jones simply owns the role of the mousy Home Counties man, still living at home with his mum, who is undergoing a great culture clash both professionally (he usually works on bucolic nature documentaries) and culturally (he struggles to integrate with the direct temperaments of most of his colleagues). The scene where Gilderoy is implored that the only way he’ll get back his expenses is by ‘giving as good as he gets’ with the Italians is a masterclass in how a mild-natured man painfully struggles when attempting to give true expression to his repressed anger. (December 2013)

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