It seemed that Berberian Sound Studio was not the main draw at the DCA on Friday night. With most of the cinema’s patrons opting for the star-filled choices of Anna Karenina or Lawless, I sat with eight others (out of 88 seats) and prepared to take in a film celebrated as an homage to Italian cinema of the 1970s. Promising to create a twisted environment and produce, according to the Telegraph’s Robbie Colin, “lip-smacking cinema”, I entered the screening room with high expectations.
Set within the confines of an Italian recording studio, the film presents us with Gilderoy, a cherubic, portly sound engineer “summoned” to Italy to work in an unfamiliar medium: Horror. Here his inherent “Englishness” contrasts immediately with the attitudes of his new employers. Initially set down the path of a formulaic tale of a repressed Englishman thrust into dangerous, unfamiliar surroundings, Berberian Sound Studio turns those expectations on their head, employing a distinctive visual approach that sets the film apart from most cinematic experiences. The demonic soundtrack, “The Equestrian Vortex”, when coupled with the film’s cinematography, creates an unnerving environment within the titular sound studio.
The cinematography and audio components of this film are worthy of celebration and reason alone to see the movie. The soundtrack creates a sense of foreboding which elicits a genuine reaction of fear regardless of the comic action on screen. The film also disorientates and confuses viewers, with its blurred shots, close-ups, and images of mediaeval slaughter; it leaves the audience as perplexed by the environment as Gilderoy. This is where the true brilliance of the film lies. The audio and visual components combine majestically; as an exercise in film-making, there will be few films which so effortlessly succeed in creating a desired mood. Described by Stephen Carty of Empire magazine as “Nightmarish, atmospheric…superb”, to my mind, two of these three adjectives are certainly true of the film’s visual environment.
Another area where the film performs very well is humour. The juxtaposition of the actors performing in the recording booth with the situations that they are recreating works well, as does the absurdist humour in the representation of Foley arts: smashing watermelons to create the sounds of defenestrated damsels and slaughtered starlets. There are also insights into the acting business; the pseudo-satanic director and his “casting couch” approach to hiring actors brightens up the film when it begins to sag. The less successful humour, however, is found in the jokes derived from the cultural differences between Gilderoy and his new co-workers. We are never given reason to find an affinity with the protagonist beyond his podgy cheeks and, despite what reviews insinuate, Toby Jones’s performance as Gilderoy is nowhere near endearing enough to sustain the level of pathos the jokes require. Ultimately, the film’s highlights are its comedic interludes, the stunning cinematography and the employment of symbolism to hint at Gilderoy’s fate.
Gilderoy is lured by the patriarch of an insular community for the purpose of sacrifice. At times reminiscent of The Wicker Man (1973), imagery and symbolism relating to this is rife. These symbols of the horror genre are at times rather clumsily enforced. His name evokes both Guild, implying to work, and Guildenstern, a character destined to die. Our protagonist is stalked by a spider. Yet the enduring joke of Gilderoy constantly pursuing financial restitution becomes tiresome. Ultimately, despite the film’s allegorical dimension and its effective cinematography, I was left wishing they had turned as much attention to plot construction and character development. Although an attractive film with many interesting moments, it fails to fit comfortably within one genre. As one character asserts, “this is not a horror movie.”