Berberian Sound Studio is a new film by the British director Peter Strickland, about the travails of an English sound foley artist (Toby Jones) who is hired by an Italian production to create the sound for their Giallo film The Equestrian Vortex, at the titular studios in mid-70s Italy.
I haven’t done a film review in a while, but Berberian Sound Studio sufficiently piqued my interest, and left enough of a curiously unsatisfying taste in my mouth, that I’m compelled to write it up here for DM. The other main reason I am writing this is because it has been nigh on impossible to find a negative review of this film anywhere online. There are two bad reviews of note so far, but one of these comes from the Daily Mail, and as such doesn’t count.
The almost unanimous critical acclaim the film has received from the press is bemusing but not too surprising, really. This is a film that ticks a lot of boxes. It takes a hitherto scorned genre (Giallo, which if you are not familiar, are mid-70s Italian horror/exploitation flicks directed by the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci) and strips it of the grubby grindhouse connotations it has in favor of polishing it up for an art house crowd. It takes the gaudy, over-the-top brilliance of the original films it references and replaces it with it with an arch, guilt-free sense of smugness
As I’ve mentioned, BBS is an unsatisfying, frustrating experience. It is a hard film to classify, even though it is being touted as a horror-cum-thriller-cum-psychological exploration. The trouble is that it is neither horrifying nor thrilling, and as a psychological exploration it really doesn’t have much to say. What makes it even more frustrating is that it looks, and, yes, sounds brilliant, and it is hard to fault Strickland as a director in that regard. He has managed to make a film about films (and film-making) that thankfully avoids the clichés of Tarantino and his ilk, but like the 90s wunderkind, it feels hollow and bereft of any real meaning. And crucially for a film about horror, and Giallo in particular, it’s just not scary at all. In fact, at points I was plain bored.
As you’ve probably gathered, this isn’t going to be a good review. That’s not to say Berberian Sound Studio isn’t worth watching - it most definitely is, even just for the simple fact of letting the viewer making up their own mind. If you do intend on seeing this film, and you probably should, then I recommend that you skip what comes after this picture of Jones and go straight for the trailer at the bottom of this post. If, on the other hand you have seen it already, then you may find something worth discussing here.
Toby Jones as Gilderoy
Toby Jones plays the lead in Berberian Sound Studio, the British foley artist Gilderoy, whose skill working on nature documentaries finds him hired, dishonestly, by the Italian crew. Jones is a brilliant actor, and even somewhat strangely iconic, but his redoubtable skill can’t save a role that is badly under-written, the kind of thing that seems reliant on a good casting choice as opposed to good characterization. For me, the most successful central characters in horror are either uptight and lose their shit over the course of the film, or dweebs who discover their inner kick-ass hero by the end. That development is essential in giving an audience a central emotional attachment, one a clever film-maker can exploit in interesting ways. Jones’ character falls into the first camp, but unfortunately has so little development that his “breakdown” is neither compelling nor convincing - as someone mentioned outside the cinema, he started the film looking worried and ended the film looking slightly more worried. This lack of character development also affected the rest of the characters, who cruelly dangle interesting traits before our eyes only to vanish without any exploration.
Part of the failing of Gilderoy’s development is that the stakes in this film are ridiculously low. There is just no dread or fear, and that is a massive failure in a film about horror films (especially when nearly single every scene comes across as a horror set-up.) There’s no threat of death or physical violence, there is no unpredictable supernatural element, the “bad” guys just are not creepy or even very nasty. The psychological drama arrives too little, too late, and when it does it’s hard to care, or even take seriously.
My favorite aspect of films by directors like Lynch and Argento or Roeg is how dream-like they are. Yes, this is done through over the top visual and audio cues as they are here, but also through a certain disregard for the normal rules of film-reality, or story-telling. This to me is what makes them genuinely dreamy - they abide by their own logic, which is most definitely not normal. BSS is just too conservative in this respect. A good horror/thriller (even melodrama!) should have a barely concealed mania lurking just beneath the surface, like the directors mentioned above, but BSS disappoints in that respect.
In fact, if I was to be harsh, I would say this film actually stripped out the glorious, unhinged craziness of Argento in favor of the mere surface trappings of his beautiful sets and sounds, and that’s a fundamental misreading of Argento as a director. So of course, the styling is gorgeous, the music is brilliant, and there is much to please audio and film geeks. But for me, as there was so little sense of manic fear, it felt like empty bluster. This is a bloodless, anemic “thriller” concocted to please an audience who would never submit to the bizarre but fun psychoses of Phenomena or Nightmare Concert. Instead of the deliciously unhinged insight of something like Performance, we get the self-satisfied, descent-into-madness-so-let’s-fuck-with-the-film-stock tropes that afflicts many art house films, and many mainstream horrors too. Oh, the irony!
Berberian Sound Studio is a pretty film about exploitation cinema for an art house audience that relies on tired art house clichés to make its point, when grizzly exploitation flicks have been making those points more enjoyably and convincingly the whole time.
I have a word for this kind of film - “Artsploitation”.
Berberian Sound System will be screening Saturday Sept. 21 and Tuesday Sept. 25 at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, USA.