Reviews

Peter Strickland

UK, 2012

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 21 May 2013

Source digital projection

Categories The 2013 Independent Film Festival Boston

Director Peter Strickland’s second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, has “horror” listed as one of its genres on IMDb, and it is a horror film. Kind of. It tells the story of Gilderoy, a meek British sound engineer who takes a job working on a gory giallo film in 1970s Italy. Aside from a snazzy title sequence with a great Goblin-style score, we never see the feature that Gilderoy’s working on (which is blessed with the absurd moniker Equestrian Vortex). Instead, we hear it. We witness Gilderoy slicing up vegetables to simulate the sound of the viscera being spilled on screen, and eventually we begin to wonder if the work might be getting to him.

Toby Jones is excellent as Gilderoy, who serves as our proxy when he first descends into the underworld-like recording studio, but who increasingly starts to worry us. Jones makes us squirm as Gilderoy waffles between a reluctance to contribute to such a stomach-churning project (he’s used to nature documentaries) and a zeal for getting just the right scream or slice. That Jones recently played an obsessive and unsettling Alfred Hitchcock in Julian Jarrold’s The Girl, another film that indirectly questions our hunger for onscreen violence (particularly against women), only enhances his role here.

Tension builds throughout the film, as we’re led to wonder whether the nebbishy Gilderoy isn’t headed for a breakdown, or even whether his awkward and ordinary exterior isn’t a cover for a Norman Bates-sized secret. There are multiple scenes where Gilderoy gently catches and releases a spider that’s wandered inside, and I kept expecting him to finally snap and crush the poor thing. The heavy sense of dread is only enhanced by the claustrophobic setting, which includes a glowing red sign ordering “Silenzio,” and invoking the Hollywood hell of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The supporting cast is appropriately spooky, with Antonio Mancino providing menace as the slimy director Santini.

Yet ultimately, the big reveal is that there really isn’t one. Strickland fulfills the Lynchian promise posed by that bright red “Silenzio” sign and veers away from a more conventional denouement, favoring something more oblique. Weirdly, the whole thing works. Perhaps that’s because Berberian Sound Studio is less a mystery story than an atmospheric exploration of how certain kinds of entertainment can haunt and even hurt us.

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