A few years ago I watched a movie called “Dumplings.” It was a Korean horror film about eating aborted fetuses in order to reverse the aging process. I thought it had the best sound design I’d ever heard. Now we may have a new sound design champion with “Berberian Sound Studio.” It may have an unfair advantage though as “Berberian Sound Studio” is actually about Foley artists.
“Berberian Sound Studio” follows a British Foley artist going to work on an Italian horror film in the 1970’s. Don’t call the genre “horror” in front of the pretentious director or you’ll get a long-winded and pompous speech about art. Anyway, Gideroy (Tobey Jones) is fairly excited to work on this project because he’s heard great things about the studio and the crew working on the feature. Gilderoy is a bit perplexed as to why they actually hired him though. He doesn’t really work in this genre, doesn’t speak Italian, and was a bit expensive to fly out there. So, there’s no direct red flags or evidence of ill will, but it’s still an odd scenario.
Shortly after Gilderoy gets to work, his suspicions of nefarious activities begin to swell. People are generally rude to him and give him morally-shakey advice. Hollywood types are usually portrayed as two-timing rascals, but this movie almost spoofs that idea as they come off closer to being self-inflating psychopaths. Gilderoy tirelessly works as he dials knobs, destroys produce, and records shriek after shriek after shriek. After watching the disturbing material over and over again and never leaving the studio, Gilderoy starts to hallucinate. Worlds blur as distinguishing between reality and art becomes an impossibility.
Tobey Jones is the linchpin of this movie. His genuinely innocent demeanor makes this paranoid acid trip of a film bearable. He’s a meek but passionate man that takes a great deal of pride in his work. To see himself pretty much sacrifice his mental well-being in order to produce the best possible product is fascinating. Tobey Jones has always been a talented actor and has portrayed an insane range of characters. It’s nice to see him in a lead role, as well as inspiring. He’s in that click of actors (Philip Seymor Hoffman, Paul Giammatti, William H. Macy) where they might not look like a leading man, but their consistent talent is what gets them noticed.
Production-wise, “Berberian Sound Studio” is fairly fantastic. It brings on a certain claustrophobia as we never really leave the studio. We’re shrouded in darkness and the only light to be had is from harsh Tungsten lights. Couple that with the constant shrieking and disturbing sounds, and I can see how it’s easy to fall into the madness. There are eerie close ups of decaying produce and vertigo-inducing wide shots.
When all is said and done, “Berberian Sound Studio” is well made. It looks great and is performed expertly. The story on the other hand is something for interpretation. There are plenty of interesting scenes, but they tend to repeat themselves. This may be a ploy to assist the descent into insanity, but I found myself losing interest after the half dozen screams into the microphone. Plus, I’m not certain what actually happened. I’m pretty sure that was the point, but a tad more information would have been helpful. Ambiguity is not a bad thing in films. Hell, more movies should be ambiguous rather than drawing a hard line between right and wrong. But I have not idea how to start an opinion…which is bad for a film review.
EXTRA TID BITS:
– I don’t what was going on in the 1970’s, but the movies coming out of Italy then were insane.
– Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker” also has some amazing sound design.
– Tobey Jones also played Alfred Hitchcock around the same time Anthony Hopkins played Hitchcock. He was also portraying Truman Capote when Philip Seymour Hoffman received an oscar for portraying Capote. Dude can’t catch a break.
– Wasn’t Peter Strickland the name of Hank Hill’s boss?