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EIFF – Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones

Melons are thwacked to pieces. Light bulbs are dragged down the length of wire coils to emit the eerie sounds of a UFO. Women scream in terror. Cabbages are stabbed.

You haven’t seen this film before.

The 1970s. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a down-at-heel British sound technician – a master at his job – who travels to Italy to make the sound effects for a Giallo horror film.  He’s often at odds with his quixotic (or more precisely, Lucio Fulci-esque) director Santini, and financially-challenged producer (Gilderoy’s pay check is always Just Coming, Soon). He quite likes the look of the indecently comely receptionist. She does not return the compliment. And then there are those troubling letters from mother … or is his mind fraying?

Berberian Sound Studio is a piece of film-making perfection. It runs on dream resonance, not narrative logic. Suffused with a creeping dread, it’s not precisely horror: more a wilful deconstruction of horror. If that all sounds vaguely David Lynchian, you’d be right – but not in the way you think. The film is nothing like a Lynch film, but shares the American auteur’s ability to play the audience like a fiddle and never cleave to cinematic conventions. It will also leave you wonderously bewildered, trying to piece things together.

You’d expect a film about sound design to have magnificently crafted sound itself, and Berberian Sound Studio is crisp, squelchy, and gleefully manipulative. It’s matched by evocative set design: last year’s superb Tinker Tailor Solider Spy rendered the 70s as beige and grimy, here they are restored to smoky, noirish glamour. The film also fizzes with absurd wit. Women in sound booths are provided motivation to record their screams: “I think the general consensus is a red-hot poker in a woman’s vagina is an intense experience.” To the men in the booth: “You are menacing. You are a dangerously aroused goblin.” Despite the streak of mordant humour, however, the film is constantly in control of tone, flitting easily from smirks to shudders.

As the tightly wound Gilderoy, Toby Jones is, as ever, brilliant, his unease gradual and gripping. Jones’ performances are always so natural they look effortless, but he deserves plaudits for this. In the role of the aloof receptionist, Tonia Sotiropoulou is improbably beautiful, a screen siren to rival Ava Gardner.

Two years ago Katalin Varga, director Peter Strickland’s first film, made great waves at film festivals world wide, a startlingly original tale of a rape-revenge fantasy. He was touted as one to look out for. Here, he has surpassed himself. The Red Curtain doubts it will see a better film all year.  Sublimely stylish, utterly assured, sexy mind-fuckery.

The Guardian has an exclusive clip: Berberian Sound Studio.

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9 responses to “EIFF – Berberian Sound Studio

  1. Steve Hickey ⋅

    I keep a list on my cellphone of films (and books) when I read a review that makes it sound great. What I love about that list is that I have usually forgotten the review’s take on the ‘about’ the film by the time I watch it. This is totally going on the list.

    (Unfortunately, it’s not playing at the NZ Film Festival, but oh well.)

    • kconaglen

      VHS review coming soon – might make you rethink attending …

      • Steve Hickey ⋅

        Yes. Based on your’s and … Lynne’s (?) reviews, I think I need to read another perspective on V/H/S, because so fair I’ve just read the Aint It Cool reviews (which have been glowing).

  2. Steve Hickey ⋅

    Also: Toby Jones? God. (You seen him in The Mist? As a fan of that novella, that felt like perfect, completely unexpected casting.)

    • kconaglen

      Hells yeah Hix I seen the mist. I seen it Real Good. Toby Jones can do no wrong, but that film continues to make me very very very very very angry. Such a cynical, exploitative ending. Repugnant.

      • Steve Hickey ⋅

        Oh yeah. That ending exposes the naked power of the Author. If they’d waited one more minute before shooting themselves, the Army wouldn’t have rolled passed until two minutes later.

        Up until that point, I loved it … but I get angry with writers when I can see the strings (cf. True Blood). On the other hand, rather than repugnant I feel it’s crazy stupid dark. That look on the son’s face when he realises what his father is going to do …

        The film completely inverts the emotional values of the original story’s ending. That makes it unforgettable but also difficult for most audiences and a betrayal for fans of the novella.

  3. kconaglen

    It left me feeling quite uncomfortable for several hours afterwards, in a grey fugue. Sonia could corroborate. Speaking of which, have I thrust you to into each other’s company? Her King knowledge/enthusiasm rivals yours, I think it would be fantastic/vaguely terrifying to watch you discuss.

    • Steve Hickey ⋅

      I am definitely aware of Sonia’s reputation for being King-wise. We’re Facebook friends, but I’m looking forward to meeting her someday 🙂

  4. Pingback: Women in Horror: Berberian Sound Studio vs V.H.S. « The Red Curtain

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