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Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

IFC Films
DVD Released: 12/10/2013

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/19/2013

Toby Jones stars in Berberian Sound Studio as Gilderoy, a British sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a horror film. He doesn't speak Italian and hasn't worked on this kind of movie before, so he's already out of his element from the moment he arrives. The film's director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), is nowhere to be found, and the producer who is overseeing the recording of the sound effects and the mixing, Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco), is very demanding and berates the actresses who are laying down the dialogue tracks. However, Gilderoy is a true professional and he does his best to work under these odd conditions. At night, Gilderoy spends his time alone in an apartment and reads letters from his mother. As the production continues, Coraggio becomes more and more demanding and Gilderoy begins to suffer the effects of homesickness and stress.

Regular visitors to this site may have noticed that, unlike most of my reviews, this one doesn't have an introductory paragraph. The reason for this is simple -- If Berberian Sound Studio is not going to give me an ending, then I'm not going to this review a beginning. Fair enough. Writer/Director Peter Strickland has created a very unique and compelling film which works for 2/3 of its running time -- not perfectly, but it works. However, the last 1/3 is a complete mess which pushes the definitions of terms like "art movie" and "experimental film". The fact that this movie redefined fizzling out is a true disappointment, as Strickland's love letter to giallo films (complete with black gloves) gets lost in the mail.

The film begins with little fanfare, as it hits the ground running with Gilderoy arriving at the titular studio and we are right along side him on his strange journey. We can't understand what those around him are saying, and it immediately becomes clear that Coraggio is a tyrant. As the pressure of the job begins to build, other odds factors emerge. Gilderoy has difficulty getting reimbursed for his flight to Italy. We never see him outside of the studio or his apartment. His interactions with others, even those which speak English, are limited. Strickland does a good job of building a dream-like sense of tension here. His most masterful move is that we never seen any of the footage from The Equestrian Vortex, the film on which Gilderoy is working. We hear some of the dialogue and sound effects, and we scenes being described, but it all exists in our imagination.

Unfortunately, so does any satisfying conclusion to this film. Once we pass the halfway point, some surreal ideas begin to enter Berberian Sound Studio. This is fine, as it makes sense if we are reading it as a symptom of what is happening with Gilderoy. But as the third act proceeds, the story becomes more and more nightmare-like and further from reality. The coup de grace occurs when Strickland inserts footage of what appears to be a documentary about an area of Britain. What is the meaning of this? Is this a film on which Gilderoy had worked? We never know. This goes from being an intriguing psychological drama to a complete mess which offers no real clues for the audience. Want proof of this? -- Simply check out the various on-line discussions where those who have watched the film debate about what it means. This is the kind of movie where the honest throw their hands up in disgust and the pretentious claim that they know exactly what happened. Trust me, David Lynch couldn't explain this movie to me.

This obviously isn't the first movie to focus on how movies are made, but I can't think of another outside (De Palma's Blow Out, perhaps?) which focuses solely on the sound department. That alone makes Berberian Sound Studio interesting, and, again, the first part of the film works. While watching the movie, we wish that we could see some clips from The Equestrian Vortex and this is obviously Strickland's goal, as it sounds like the perfect successor to Argento's Suspiria. But, his plan backfires, as I really wished that I had been watching the fictitious movie instead of the real one.

Berberian Sound Studio is clearly set in the past, but never establishes what year on DVD courtesy of IFC Films. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain and no defects from the source materials. Strickland has gone for a very brown color palette here, so we don't get many bright colors until the brief documentary segment. Still, the colors look fine and the image is never overly dark or bright. The picture rarely goes soft and most shots have a nice crispness to them. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The dubbed screams of the actresses in the film come through well and fill the speakers. The stereo effects are nicely done and several sounds trigger the subwoofer in an effective way.

The Berberian Sound Studio DVD contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Peter Strickland. "Behind the Scenes" (21 minutes) focuses on the making of the film, beginning with the producer's discovery of Strickland. The piece contains some on-set footage, mixed in with comments from the filmmakers and the cast. We learn about the casting, the production design, and the production. "Box Hill Documentary" (5 minutes) brings us the uncut version of the brief faux documentary we see in the film. The DVD contains nine DELETED, EXTENDED, AND ALTERNATE SCENES. Each one is accompanied by a text introduction. We get a "Photo Gallery" (20 minutes) which is tethered to a commentary by Strickland. The extras are rounded out by an "Alternate Poster Gallery" and a TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2013 by Mike Long