Berberian Sound Studio is quite possibly one of the most difficult films I’ve watched all year. That’s a pity, too, as the premise was very promising and very, very exciting.
Depending on what you’ve read about the story, the popular synopsis going around says the film is about a British sound engineer who is hired by an Italian producer and director to work on their ’70s horror film. Soon after, “life imitates art.”
That’s partially correct. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, and yes, he’s a sound engineer working on a Suspiria-esque film called The Equestrian Vortex. Whether life actually imitates art for Gilderoy remains to be seen. Indeed, some trippy business does occur, but none of it makes sense. More than anything, Berberian Sound Studio is tantamount to monotonous, well-photographed behind-the-scenes footage of a film production – dull, pretentious self-important posturing that doesn’t amount to much and is more frustrating than absorbing.
Writer-director Peter Strickland succeeds at capturing the process of film post-production and all that is involved in that, from foley to ADR. He’s infatuated with the banal as his camera wanders over sound effects notes, equipment, and the props and vegetables used to create the sounds of stabbing and crushed heads.
It’s all very interesting, at first, as we’re drawn into Berberian’s world, however, when we’re seeking answers in the film’s latter half and we’re still being shown loving close-ups of shot lists, Strickland’s vision grows very tiring.
Jones feels as lost as the audience as the mild-mannered Gilderoy, a man whose primary conflict is getting reimbursed for his flight from the UK to Italy. Sure, he’s got some other issues, including standing up to his Italian producer, but they are trivial problems. And as Gilderoy’s time on The Equestrian Vortex goes on, a few peculiar things begin to happen, but they feel like nothing more than dream sequences – they’re certainly not life or plot-altering events. Never once did I feel that he was competent in what he did, so if Gilderoy’s job was put into any jeopardy for any reason, I never connected with it.
Yes, sound post-production can be tedious, and that’s accurately depicted, but literally…nothing happens in this movie. Hell, we don’t even get to see footage of the film Gilderoy is working on. Instead, Berberian Sound Studio takes great joy in teasing us, offering nothing more than scene descriptions and snippets of dialogue. And, let me tell you, The Equestrian Vortex sounds immensely amusing. (As if in retaliation of Berberian, I feel compelled to go out and actually shoot an Equestrian Vortex film culled from the information we’re given about the story.)
Berberian Sound Studio is neither a love letter to Italian horror cinema nor a good drama. It’s certainly not a horror film. And it’s not an engaging esoteric, existential journey. It’s quite simply a drag with monumental missed opportunities.