Monday, February 25, 2013

DVD Of the Week: Berberian Sound Studio

Some movies are made for immediate reaction. I loved (Marvel) Avengers Assemble for instance, it's impact overwhelming any limitations in it and left me walking out the cinema communing with my inner 8-year-old geek. I didn't need to see more than 20 minutes of Transformers 2 to know I would rather gnaw my own arm off, 127 Hours-style, than watch the rest. Simple, immediate reactions. Other films need longer to work through, to get past that initial reaction and parse something deeper. One of those films is Berberian Sound Studio.


My initial reaction was that I liked it, but had a hard time expressing why. Even now, a couple of days later, I'm a little hazy on what makes it work, because when you break it down there really isn't a lot to it as a film. Withdrawn, repressed Englishman Gilderoy - played by the always-excellent Toby Jones - arrives in Italy to work as a Foley Artist on an Italian horror movie. For those not sure what a Foley Artist is, he's the guy that synchs up all the sound effects and Additional Dialogue Recording to the visuals, although the film is pretty good at making it clear how his job works without exposition. Its quickly apparent he's a man out of his depth - he doesn't  speak the language, he doesn't understand the culture, and I'm not even sure he's worked in a large studio before, and he's exposed to gruesome images day after day the like of which he's clearly never seen before.

The film is a study in ambiguity; a lot of the above I'm surmising, for example. The film he's working on, The Equestrian Vortex, is a huge presence but crucially we never see it; we hear it, we get descriptions of some scenes, and it certainly sounds pretty full-on visceral horror (despite its Directors protestations) but as an audience we have no way of telling if its a work of art or bargin-basement trash. Although I suspect the latter. As the film goes on, Gilderoy is increasingly affected by both his working environment and the film itself, gradually and visibly fraying around the edges, but the film never gives us any real cathartic moments of realization or meltdown, with an ending as obtuse as the rest of the film.

Which is pretty damn cool, really. The thing that works best about Berberian Sound Studio is not that it's menacing, but that its unsettling. Like Gilderoy you're left unsure about everything, at times unsure even what the film wants you feel about anything. At one level it feels like a parable about desensitization, at another its an almost affectionate portrait of how these films were made and the people that made them, and on another level its a critique of how women, particularly are treat within the genre. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the gaps, and it's about something else entirely. It's just that sort of film.

As you might expect it's sound-scape is amazing; the performances are fantastic and the overall atmosphere creepy and suspenseful. There is a lot of enjoy and analyse. On the other hand, I suspect some of the things that made it (for me) a mesmerizing watch will also turn off a lot people for whom "weird and unsettling" isn't their idea of Saturday night entertainment. But for I'm still a little unsure about what I really thought of it, its certainly worth the watch.