What is this film, exactly?
Sometimes that’s a good question to ask, and the answer is helpful. Sometimes we need to know if the film we’re contemplating giving time and money to see is the sort of thing which we might enjoy. Sometimes, however, to ask such a question can be reductive and simplistic. That’s the case with the strange, hypnotic, unsettling Berberian Sound Studio.
It’s set in an indeterminate year (though one that’s clearly analogue rather than digital) as we follow Gilderoy, an English sound engineer arriving in Italy to work on a film there. It soon becomes apparent to him that the film he’s working on is not what he’s expecting – though we never see what he’s seeing on the screens in front of him, it’s clearly a graphic and explicit horror film. Not Gilderoy’s cup of tea. What’s more, it’s clear that those in power at the film studio hold manipulative sway over those under them – especially the lead actresses portraying those abused and hunted on-screen. As we go on we witness Gilderoy’s distrubing journey as the material he’s working on starts to shape him rather than the other way round.
It’s a deeply unsettling film, in a very good way. As such it’s asking a whole series of important questions: what does portraying something repulsive do to those doing the portraying? When does vision become manipulation and abuse? What does it mean to follow your calling in a context you don’t understand and aren’t fully comfortable with? Not only are these questions asked, but we’re also confronted with some uncomfortable truths – the male drive to dominate and subjugate women being the most powerfully articulated.
There are two elements that lift this from being a strange, almost wilfully weird, piece into a very good and accessible one. The first is Toby Jones’ outstanding central performance, almost note perfect from the initial eager-to-please Englishman abroad on a descent into confusion to compliance to … something darker and harder to define. The second is, appropriately, the sound. Gilderoy loves his trade, and so the makers of this film; in loving detail we see the older technology and the myriad fruit and vegetables used to reproduce life-like sounds on-screen. So this film’s sound design draws us deeper into a disorienting and confusing world, one which reveals layers like Russian dolls the deeper we go. The sound echoes and bounces, implies and suggests. What we hear but can’t see is far more worrying than what our eyes tell us. I watched this film with sound through a decent pair of earphones, a way of watching I really can commend. The isolation and immersion of that experience far more involving than most 3D visual spectaculars.
Berberian Sound Studio takes wings in your ears and asks you questions you’ll ponder for days. Seek it out.
I watched this film on digital download on my computer.
I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com