Berberian Sound Studio * * * 1/2

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Director: Peter Strickland.
Screenplay: Peter Strickland.
Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancini, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Susanna Cappellaro, Suzy Kendall, Hilda Péter, Layla Amir, Eugenia Caruso, Chiara D’Anna, Lara Parmiani.

This second feature from director Peter Strickland (following “Katalin Varga” in 2009) is certainly an interesting bag of mixed opinions. Some have claimed it to be a five star experience, while others simply didn’t get it. I suppose it depends a lot on your approach beforehand but there’s no mistaking that it’s one of those film’s where you’re left to make up your own mind.

An experienced British sound-engineer is hired to work on a low-budget Italian horror movie called “Equestrian Vortex”. Throughout his work, he struggles with the language-barrier and constant exposure to horror movie images and finds himself drawn into a vortex all his own, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality.

The thing that strikes you most from this film when it opens is it’s good sense of atmosphere. It possess an almost strange sepia tint, as if the proceedings have been desaturated. There’s a permeating feeling dread and unease that courses through it as, time itself, seems to stroll by. Strickland is certainly in no rush to tell his story and he also abandons any conventional method in doing so; a good chunk of the dialogue is in Italian and there’s a deliberate omission of subtitles. This may put some people off but it serves to create an understanding and affiliation with the loneliness and isolation of the protagonist, Gilderoy (played brilliantly by Toby Jones). Although deliberate, and an interesting method, I also found it somewhat frustrating. What’s also very interesting is that the story takes shape in the sound that’s provided for film’s rather than the images. How many times have you ever seen a horror movie that relies solely on audio rather than visual? Cabbages are stabbed and plunged into water to provide the perfect accompanying sound of someone being stabbed or drowned. It’s an interesting insight and the suggestion of horror is actually captured very well using this approach. When we do, eventually, see the images that have been getting dubbed, it throws the film into a completely new surrealistic direction that shares similarities with the mind-bending talents of David Lynch and his art imitating life theme of “Inland Empire” or “Mulholland Drive“. Of course, thats where the similarity ends as Strickland doesn’t have the ability to construct his story with any real meaning in the way that Lynch excels at. I’m no stranger to surreal cinema, in fact I love it, but this leaned a little too far to self-indulgence for me.
Anyone familiar with the ‘Giallo’ horrors of Italian cinema during the 60’s and 70’s will, no doubt, take a lot more from this film than I did. That being said, there’s no denying it’s grasp on atmosphere and it’s impressive ability to build tension. However, as our protagonist becomes increasingly withdrawn and descends in madness, we descend into obscurity without any real satisfying conclusion. For me, the film just ended. I was aware of it’s nature and prepared for any subtext or symbolism that it might throw my way, but in the end, it didn’t quite come together. I was hoping for a more satisfying conclusion.

It’s certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes. For some, it will bore. For others, it will confuse. However, if your open minded enough, it will draw you in. Basically, it’s an art-house horror that can either be seen as pretentious clap trap or an astute homage. I, strangely, find myself somewhere in between.

Mark Walker

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38 Responses to “Berberian Sound Studio * * * 1/2”

  1. Chose this (along with The Master) as Best Movie of 2012 for obvious reasons. I’m the first to admit that i’m extremely biased towards it but it’s such a magical movie…

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  2. Interesting. Great review man. You know I’ve came across many love/hate films lately. I posted a review of Holy Motors Friday and it falls into the same category. I still want to give BSS a try.

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  3. Seeing the reviews, this definitely is a love-hate film. I think I’ll try to give Berberian Sound Studio a shot but lower my expectations. Nice review.

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    • Thanks man. I know you’re a fan of Lynch so there’s a chance you might really enjoy this. I did but I didn’t find it as good as what Lynch has delivered over the years.

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  4. I’d have to agree with you Mark. I’m somewhere in between as well. I loved the ambiance of the film but the story was too wacky for me. Seemed a bit pointless.

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    • Exactly Chris. “Pointless” is the perfect word to describe it. I loved the ambience too. It was brilliantly done but a bit of a letdown when all is said and done.

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  5. Spot on Mark. I thought the final third was almost incomprehensible. Just having a sliver of rational narrative in there would have worked wonders but I just found myself becoming too confused. I thought it was visually and aurally brilliant but that’s not quite enough for me unfortunately.

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    • Absolutely man. I normally enjoy a good convoluted and surrealistic approach but this went a little too far with very little pay-off behind it. Like you say, just a slither would have helped this no end. It wasn’t a bad film by any means but it could have been a lot better if the narrative was a little tighter.

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  6. I keep seeing people aka Catalin scoring this so highly. Doesnt appeal to me for some reason. Nice write up buddy

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  7. Great review, Mark! I must give this one a try – I’ve been looking for some good horrors for a while, and this one certainly sounds interesting. It also sounds unusual enough to keep me on my toes 🙂

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    • Thanks Georgina. It may not appeal to everyone but it certainly is interesting. No doubt about that. I admired many things about it but I just wish it delivered a bit more.

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  8. Well crap, I haven’t even heard of this movie and I’m a huge Toby Jones fan. He’s always the actor that gets swept under the rug by bigger names and it’s a shame that he isn’t getting the attention he deserves. But damn does this movie sound interesting. Is it on Netflix?

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  9. Popcorn Nights Says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing this at some point, so don’t have much to add except to say I enjoyed the review!

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  10. I think you know my thoughts on this one. Not sure were others deem it a five TBH. You’re right, it just didn’t come together.

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  11. This is the third review I’ve read in just a week, must be quite a popular movie in the UK 😀 I quite like Toby Jones but well, as you know, I have a feeble nerves in regards to horror so I probably will skip this one Mark.

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    • Yeah, this seems to more popular in europe Ruth. It’s a good film and doesn’t deliver anything that’s deeply disturbing. It’s more about the atmosphere and how the main character begins to lose his grip. I’d say, you could possibly manage this one. If it doesn’t appeal, then I can understand that too.

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  12. hmmm I am not usually into horror that much but this one looks interesting. I watched a film with cabbages last night, The Master, but he was making them into moonshine.

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    • I’m not usually into horror that much either Adam but I had to give this a go as it was getting talked about often. It’s a good movie but I’d much rather sit down to a David Lynch film.

      So you’ve seen The Master then? That’s my film if the year. I’d be interested to hear what you have to say on that one.

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