This year’s Hallowe’en movie of choice was Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the story of a British sound engineer working on an Italian horror movie, which had been on my radar as one of the first films to receive a glowing review from The Dissolve.
The film, a British production from director Peter Strickland, is an oddly tense mood piece centred around a brilliantly restrained performance by career character actor Toby Jones. Over the years Jones has had a couple of prominent roles - most notably perhaps as the lead in 2006’s other Truman Capote biopic - and recently he appeared as a fantastically loathsome Percy Alleline in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He was amongst a pretty stellar cast there, but here he’s likely to be the most recognisable face. His range in the role of Gilderoy is just wide enough to introduce questions about the character’s psychological state as events proceed, without making the film something it’s not supposed to be.
That same thin line is walked expertly in the direction. It would have been very easy to allow the elements of this film to creep into pastiche, but Strickland has found a balance reminiscent of David Lynch in which the material is self-aware but still retains an unsettling aspect. As the various story threads progress the plot begins to blur some of the lines between what Gilderoy is working on and what he’s living through. This bleeding of realities is mirrored in the construction of the film itself. Visual elements are often quickly intercut or presented as layered onscreen: characters seen behind glass which also reflects something else; light leaks encroaching onto the faces of (mock-)terrified voice actors.
In one particularly memorable moment the very fabric of the film seems to corrupt, celluloid skipping off the reel and melting. Strickland uses a lot of these tricks to speak to Gilderoy’s deteriorating state, and one of the film’s great charms is that so little of the turmoil actually plays out in Gilderoy himself. Jones’s portrayal is too thoroughly British to resort to overt displays of emotion: he’s the anti-Jack Torrance, battling homesickness by listening to recordings of a mantlepiece clock and quietly reading (increasingly disturbing) letters from his mother. The one occasion on which he does try to channel the passionate Italian way of doing things is presented as a laughable failure. The dichotomy of a staid central performance amid increasing visual and narrative discord is tremendously effective.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film set predominantly in a sound studio however, the greatest achievement here is in sound design. More so than any film I can think of Berberian Sound Studio intends the audience to be aware of its auditory elements as vital components in storytelling. Early on we are introduced to the concepts of overdubbing and foley, and presented with a character in Gilderoy whose reputation is as a master of sound mixing. The film’s genius is in the fact that no matter how frequently it draws attention to soundtrack as an artificial construction of filmmaking you never stop falling for the trick. Strickland employs many techniques to foreground the production of film audio: frequent close-ups on dials, sliders, and tape machines; full-screen shots of oscilloscopes; characters surrounded by magnetic tape that moves and shimmers as it records. And yet, as soon as the film provides you with something else to concentrate on you cease to consider the effects of the soundtrack on your viewing experience. The delight Strickland takes in whipping that particular rug out from under the audience is palpable, and I couldn’t help but be amazed as I realised for the dozenth time that I’d been fooled by the same sleight-of-ear. The co-conspirator in the mix is a knowing soundtrack by Birmingham electronic outfit Broadcast, making this one of the most sonically interesting films I’ve ever come across.
Berberian Sound Studio is wonderfully unique. Lynch may be the closest touchstone, but this is a more muted offering that remains just this side of psychological freefall. It also knows when to end, the lack of a neat resolution implying that what we have seen thus far is the start of something perhaps unresolvable - a loop of tape skipping reels, and playing over.