Published Sep 07, 2012While it works as an abstract, expressionistic identity crisis horror in the vein of a toned-down David Lynch, Berberian Sound Studio's most profound achievement is its audacious celebration of the minutiae of sound design.
Tobey Jones (Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Your Highness, to highlight his divergent interests) takes the lead as Gilderoy, a proper British sound mixer mysteriously hired to work well outside of his comfort zone on an Italian Giallo picture.
An ominous tone pervades the film, caused by the alienating sense of Gilderoy's discomfort with the casual intimacy of Italian culture and the nonchalant avoidance of legitimate professional concerns enabled by his polite, non-confrontational disposition more than the specific events taking place.
Much to Gilderoy's frustration, the film's director is largely absent, and when he does show up, he's a pretentious dick, leaving intense, domineering producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) to run the audio sessions. Already out of sorts, the nebbish sound wizard is further put-off when he begins to realize that he's been misled about the film's content. But partly out of an unconditional love of his craft, and partly due to constant bullying about professionalism from Francesco, Gilderoy gradually starts to lose himself in the delicate creation of auditory horror.
Director Peter Strickland cleverly makes the mixing console the god of this narrative, with every sound originating from that mechanical auditory omnipotence. For example, whenever Gilderoy swaps a microphone in search of the right tonality for an actress to achieve a blood-curdling scream of witch torture, we hear the sound texture change, emphasising just how much the manipulation of sound can shape perception and emotional response.
Furthering Strickland's use of technical metaphors by utilizing shallow depth of field and intimate close-up of machine functions, the cinematography is designed to underline the limitations of how a specialist relates to anything outside his area of expertise. "Think of us like your microphones – each one of us has a name," one of the actresses advises Gilderoy before the film descends into confounding, inarticulate madness.
It lacks the intuitive application of surreal subconscious logic and propulsive sensationalized plotting of comparable works like Lynch's Inland Empire, but Berberian Sound Studio is worth a look, and listen, for its brave and affectionate experiments in technical design. (Films We Like)