Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Berberian Sound Studio.

criterion logo1976.  A mild-mannered British sound engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives in Rome to work on the post-synchronized soundtrack to The Equestrian Vortex, a bloody tale of witchcraft and murder set inside an all-girls riding academy.  Thrown from the innocent world of English nature documentaries to the forbidding realm of exploitation cinema, he quickly finds his meek disposition clashing with the bitter actresses, capricious staff, and confounding bureaucracies of his Italian hosts.  Gilderoy’s simulated aural violence takes on a cruel edge in this environment, eventually revealing that it is his own mind that holds the real horrors.  As the line between film and reality blurs, is Gilderoy working on a film or in one?  A meta-horror tale that is equal parts paranoid thriller and loving tribute to the lost art of analog sound recording, Berberian Sound Studio is a spiraling dreamscape of personal and sonic mayhem.

Disc Features:

  • High-definition digital transfer, approved by director Peter Strickland, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary featuring Strickland
  • Interview with Strickland discussing the film’s production, the importance of sound to ’70s Italian genre cinema, and the impact of music on his work
  • Original Berberian Sound Studio short film starring The Bohemian Brothers
  • The Making of Berberian Sound Studio, a 47-minute documentary with Strickland and interviews with various cast and crew
  • Extended 1976 Box Hill documentary
  • Production design gallery reviewing the film’s dubbing charts with detailed director’s explanations
  • Deleted scenes with text descriptions and commentary by Strickland
  • What the Future Sounded Like, Matthew Bate’s 27-minute documentary on the Electronic Music Studio and the origins of experimental electronic music in England
  • A short video piece by Italy’s RAI television on the Milanese Studio di Fonologia Musicale
  • Trailer
  • Poster gallery
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring new essays by critic Mark Kermode and music critic Alexis Petridis

Movies about movies are always such a treat.  Piercing the enclosed fictive space of the filmic narrative and annihilating the studio’s “we-all-enjoyed-working-together-so-much” production illusion, movies about movies let us view the seedy details of film production – vain actors, studio meddling, budgetary constraints, creative compromises, acts of god, even the casting couch.  These films let cinephiles see the sausages get made and partake in the Schadenfreude of observing their filmic idols as human.  Berberian Sound Studio offers a glimpse behind the scenes at an industry not often examined from the other side of the camera – the Italian giallo cinema.  The gialli, of course, are those gruesome murder thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s, typified by stylish cinematography, plenty of female flesh, expressive musical effects, and a lot of fake blood.  Gilderoy, the reserved British sound engineer of Berberian Sound Studio, is poorly suited for the giallo industry.  Misunderstanding the film The Equestrian Vortex as a nature documentary like the sedate films he worked on at home, he finds himself trapped in his obligation to the filmmakers and unprepared in navigating the office politics of the sleazy Italian post-production studio.  Gilderoy is perpetually placed in the role of meddler, whiner, snob, and killjoy to the production’s imperious men, like producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), and its temperamental women, treated as easy conquests for the film’s egotistical director Santini (Antonio Mancio).  From a typical fish-out-of-water premise, Berberian Sound Studio expands the tensions of Gilderoy’s predicament into something that avoids mutual understanding and instead depicts the collapsing bounds of personal identity.

Filmmaker Peter Strickland breaks down Gilderoy’s psyche within the sonic landscape of Berberian Sound Studio.  Films about sound are relatively few and far between.  Comparisons between Strickland’s movie and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) are frequently made, suggesting that Berberian Sound Studio picks up where De Palm’s film lets off.  Sound is often treated in films as a more direct route to the truth.  While the eye can deceive, the ears in films like Blow Out and The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) provide access to a hidden reality and their protagonists struggle to make the external world, governed by their other senses, acknowledge that truth.  Berberian Sound Studio upends much of the cinematic conventions of sound.  Rather than discovering truth, Gilderoy constructs facsimiles, plotting mixes and miking performers to create credible audio content for an always unseen film (save for a bravura title sequence).  We are always watching Gilderoy carefully listening and uncomfortably seeing The Equestrian Vortex‘s nightmare world.  When he is obliged to take over the film’s foley work, we observe the spiritual toll of Gilderoy synchronously stabbing produce and burning fluid in a hot pan.  The sound of knives entering organic matter, cabbages or flesh, becomes the reality and the mouldering produce is as emblematic of Gilderoy’s mental degradation as the unseen victims of the giallo.  By the later stages of Berberian Sound Studio, it is not merely Gilderoy’s psyche that elides, but the entire plastics of the film.  Strickland lets the sonic violence of Gilderoy’s work wrought on his mental state infect the film itself, corrupting its narrative and creating an Ouroboros-like monster.  The less said about it all, the better.

Berberian Sound Studio most clearly dovetails with David Lynch’s darkly surrealist films and unsettling sound designs, while the film’s fetishistically technological horror frequently draws comparisons to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983).  Strickland’s characterization of the Italian studio is sometimes criticized as culturally broad, although one might question by the film’s end whether it presents a purportedly objective view of Italian culture or an entirely subjective perception/imagination from Gilderoy.  Toby Jones is impeccably cast as the withdrawn English sound engineer.  His performance, a highly restrained collection of hesitations and tentative false starts, is expertly conceived and a wonder to behold.  Strickland found inspiration for Gilderoy in trailblazing record producer Joe Meek (who shot himself and his landlady in 1967) and the particular Englishness of The Clangers composer Vernon Elliott.  The filmmaker is a fascinating figure in his own right, a 39-year old experimental musician with membership in the Sonic Catering Band, responsible for overseeing the Peripheral Conserve record label, and holding an abiding fascination with avant-garde composers like Bruno Maderna and Ennio Morricone who made their livings by composing for giallo soundtracks.  Strickland even takes his admiration of experimental music as far as to even allude to opera singer Cathy Berberian in the film’s title.  Even the film’s soundtrack by British group Broadcast is presently on its way to critical canonization, finding itself included on some mid-year “Best of” lists.

Berberian Sound Studio PosterBerberian Sound Studio has achieved domestic acclaim in its native England, named #5 on Sight & Sound‘s best films of 2012, tied for Mark Kermode’s best film of the year, and winner of 4 British Independent Film Awards, including best director and best actor, however Strickland’s anti-horror film has yet to make its impact in North America.  Currently part of the IFC Midnight line (whatever that means), there exists the possibility that Berberian Sound Studio might join the ranks of other IFC titles bearing Criterion spine numbers.  The Collection would be well served to stamp a wacky “C” on this Polanski-esque tale of madness and movie-making.  The variety and superior quality of poster art associated with the film is nearly shocking.  From all of the choices available, I’m most fond of this one for a potential cover.  The reel-to-reel system pictured is most closely representative of the film and its death imagery is the most direct of the disturbing collages prepared in support of Berberian Sound Studio.  While this poster is conspicuous for its lack of Toby Jones, the Collection has never been preoccupied with marketing through the stars of their pictures and has always been comfortable with abstraction.

Credits:  This post is indebted to many pieces written on Berberian Sound Studio, particularly Chris Darke’s article for Film Comment, “Uneasy Listening,” and interviews with Peter Strickland including Danny Leigh’s for The Guardian, Jason Anderson’s for Cinema Scope, and Bijan Tehrani’s for Cinema Without Borders.  The cover summary is largely an amalgam of the IFC website summary and the TIFF program summary.  Unless otherwise mentioned, the special features are taken from the Region B UK Blu-ray.  Strickland identified to Jason Anderson that he found inspiration in documentaries on the BBC Radiographic Workshop and the Studio di Fonologia, and so some documentary special features on these studios and focusing on sound design seemed appropriate.  A poster gallery also seemed a necessity given the volume of fantastic promotional art.  Mark Kermode, a past Criterion essay contributor, has been a prominent advocate of the film, while British rock journalist Alexis Petridis has been a vocal supporter of the film’s soundtrack and an essay by him would provide a forum to discuss the composing band Broadcast, as well as the other musical influences on the film (assuming that the other special features involving Strickland don’t already canvass his fascination with the experimental and musique concrète traditions in horror genre music).

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