In the realm of modern popular cinema the expectation is that the craft remains for the most part seamless. The editing should not be distracting, the cinematography should not be too self-conscious, the score should not be too overbearing. Where these lines are drawn is the cut and thrust of film criticism itself, and one person’s subtlety is another’s frying-pan to the head. When a film comes along that tugs at these very seams, and indeed starts pulling them apart, critics very easily, and not unjustifiably go into fits of ecstatic praise.
Some British critics are going absolutely wild for Berberian Sound Studio. In part this is because Berberian is a demonstration of how intricately sound can be woven into a picture, and having established this fundament the film quite merrily pulls it apart stitch by meticulous stitch. Knowing as this process is, the manner of this rather brutal deconstruction makes for a really compelling film.
A 1970s period piece set in the titular Italian sound studio, the fastidious British sound engineer Gilderoy is shipped over to help record the soundtrack to a brutal yet perennially unseen Italian horror film. When the sound effect artists are suddenly taken ill, it is poor Gilderoy who has to step away from the mixing desk, and into the role of hardcore vegetable mutilator. Plump marrows dropped from great heights; heads of cabbage given the slasher treatment; whole watermelons tenderized to pulp; radishes torn stalk from head, all towards recreating the symphony of agonies bestowed variously upon set upon schoolgirls, and tortured witches alike.
The sonic body horror is one part of the chorus, and a rotating gallery of vocal talents are drawn in to scream their lungs out, or merely to supply the inhuman howls and cackles of the fiends which haunt the film we’re still forbidden to see. Add to this mix the lilting creep of synthesisers, and the manually looped and manipulated samples of music and noise, and resulting score is just as frenetic and souped up as you’d expect of a 1970s Italian horror film. Gilderoy is a consummate master of his craft, and in Toby Jones‘ strikingly careful performance can be found a quiet joy in just watching him tinker, manipulate and layer all the sounds step by step.
In focusing on sound alone Berberian somehow exceeds the fictitious Giallo it’s supposed to be shadowing. It’s neither breathless or lurching in its dramatic shifts; instead it builds up a tense and anxious mood which is never really scary per se, just endlessly uneasy. Which of course is indubitably worse in its own quiet way. Match this with an uncertain narrative arc, a seamless (!) if occasionally disjointing transition between scenes, and a final act which leaves you grasping at every hint of a conclusion, and the sum total is a non-horror film which is quite impishly beguiling in its own right.
While the first flush of the UK release is limited to the larger arthouse cinemas across the country, the alternative option of watching the film ‘on-demand’ instantly via computer can only be recommended for those too far away from an obliging bricks-and-mortar cinema. Like Enter the Void, Berberian Sound Studio thrives on being played in a dark room with a big screen and a LOUD sound system, and a tinny laptop speaker isn’t going to capture the uneasy creaks and synthesised hums which really gives the film its nervous life.
When the big studios are unremitting in promoting 3D as cinema’s last premium-worthy USP, it’s quite telling that one of the last films funded using the UK Film Council’s ‘Low Budget Feature Film Scheme’ can prove how vital the cinema ‘experience’ is, without the need for plastic glasses or condescending adverts.
Four out of Five
Berberian Sound Studio is showing at the Watershed in Bristol for two weeks from the 31st of August 2012.