Style is a strange creature. Without it, a film fails, but with too much of it, that same film can fall into tedium. Which brings me to my problem with Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” a moody, elegantly shot tone poem of one man’s crisis at an Italian horror studio that was critically hailed across the pond. After two viewings, the film has left me bored.
It’s 1976, and dumpy, perpetually adrift-looking Gilderoy (Toby Jones) starts his first day at the Berberian Sound Studio on the wrong foot: the pretty receptionist is rudely dismissive of him, and he can’t receive compensation for his flight over from Dorking (!), his hometown in the UK. Gilderoy was previously a sound-man on tourism documentaries, and his new gig -- working on a film called “The Equestrian Vortex,” in which a slew of babes ride horses, contend with witches, meet grisly ends, or are themselves horse-riding witches who meet grisly ends -- is considerably sleazier than he imagined. Gilderoy must not be too familiar with the giallo, an erotic-horror subgenre that emerged in the 1960s Italian film industry, of which Berberian seems to deal in some of the more disreputable examples.
Periodically hanging around the recording studio are producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who oversees the dubbing and sound effects process, and the great horror “maestro” Santini (Antonio Mancino), both equally slick and robustly stereotypical Italian men whose lechery, misogyny and general fascination with female dismemberment Gilderoy can’t quite relate to. Or can he?
One of the conceits at the center of “Berberian Sound Studio” is that Gilderoy, as opposed to being an innocent spectator of the sordid goings-on at the studio, is himself complicit in the sexism and violence towards women that is enacted day in and day out, either on screen or off. He isn’t just standing by and looking uncomfortable (though he does a lot of that), he’s taking part, hacking up heads of lettuce and ripping radishes to bits as he finds the perfect sound effects to accompany the ludicrous horror film being made.
This is an enticing premise, though it’s bogged down by Strickland’s insistence on padding his 88-minute film with repeated shots that convey more cool style than sinister substance. I enjoy a textural close-up of lettuce as much as the next person, but it’s an abundance of shots like this -- accompanied by spooky if eventually monotonous synthy ambient noises -- that makes me wonder if “Berberian Sound Studio” would have been better served at a tight 60-minute running time.
Jones gives the role of Gilderoy a suitable amount of heart -- his reading and re-reading of letters from Mum and the “comforting” sound effects tapes he plays while alone in his flat nicely convey his homesickness. But nonetheless he’s out to sea, not given much to do and treading water because of it. A character can only cast confused glances so many times before he becomes a pill, and even as Gilderoy’s tendency towards violence escalates and he forms a half-intriguing friendship with one of the studio’s beleaguered actresses (Fatma Mohamed), he still can’t overcome his overarching inertness. He’s often overshadowed by the nifty sound effects he creates, an alchemy that usually involves some combination of household appliances and vegetables.
The film has a sense of humor, thanks to a periodically
clever script by Strickland that captures the campy spirit of the giallo. (Scene directions repeatedly
read aloud in the recording studio include “a dangerously aroused goblin” and “a
secret equestrian library holding a treatise on witchcraft.”) Indeed, the
comedic elements capture a sense of mood better than the extended stylistic
montages, as they effectively tap into the perverse juxtaposition of
ridiculousness and gory terror at the heart of the cult Italian genre
Strickland so clearly loves.
Luxurious shots of Gilderoy’s hand pushing soundboard switches, color-coded charts explaining where certain effects belong, and a flashing red “SILENZIO” sign -- all very pretty, perhaps too much so -- ultimately drain the film of exactly the creepy, seedy tone it’s reaching for. If only this beast were a little more compact and a little less impressed with its own artistic flourishes, it would be much more satisfying to carve into.
"Berberian Sound Studio" hits theaters and VOD on June 14, via IFC Films.