How do you measure success in cinema? ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ is a stylistically ambitious, morally radical, thematically complex work. There are scenes, sensations and (especially) sounds here that feel altogether new, strange and exciting. So if the film doesn’t quite scale the lofty peaks that writer-director Peter Strickland has set his sights on, it’s easy to forgive. It’s always better to aim high and fall short.
Toby Jones hits a career best as Gilderoy, an English sound recordist who, in the early 1970s, arrives at an Italian recording studio to work on the Foley track of a groundbreaking new horror picture. A buttoned-down mother’s boy who works in his garden shed, Gilderoy is unprepared for the graphic scenes of torture he’s forced to witness. The intensity of the project, coupled with a deep longing for home, begins to play havoc with his mental state.‘Berberian Sound Studio’ is, at heart, a cine-literate horror film, despite its complete lack of on-screen violence. Strickland uses his set-up as a way to explore horror and the effect it can have on a sensitive soul, with particular focus on the sudden explosion of graphic images in the ’70s. His conclusions may be oblique, but his methods – using sound effects and dialogue to create moments of discomfort – are remarkable.
The claustrophobia of the setting – we (almost) never leave one tiny recording booth – and the multilayered use of sound make for a richly unfamiliar viewing experience, reaching a stunning climax in one moment of wholly unexpected and effective avant-garde wrongfooting: a horror-movie shock in full reverse. But from there on, Strickland’s Lynchian ambitions begin to cloud the issue. The film doubles back, loops and comes unglued, and the climax doesn’t have the freeform psychedelic impact that the director clearly craves. The effect is deflating, almost fatally so: as the credits roll, the feeling is one
of mild disappointment, even frustration.
But then, cast your mind back, and the film’s strengths reassert themselves. From Jones’s twitchy, sympathetic-but-never-likeable central turn to Strickland’s dynamic use of sound and image, from the painstakingly drip-fed plot to a series of genuinely original shock moments, ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ is like nothing before – and whether or not it ‘works’ seems almost irrelevant. In this era of cookie-cutter cinema, Strickland’s deeply personal moral and stylistic vision deserves the highest praise.