Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) New York Film Festival

Pity the poor vegetable: the watermelons, the celery, the cabbages that are smashed, chopped, torn and crushed, all in the name of horror. Pity even more the mind of poor Gilderoy (Roy Kinnear-lookalike Toby Jones), which is put through the metaphorical shredder when he goes to work at the Berberian Sound Studio. Gilderoy has been hired as the sound engineer and effects man for a cheap 'n' sleazy Italian horror and gore film, overseen by an overbearing producer and an insanely self-absorbed director. Shy, withdrawn Gilderoy is lost in this world of mayhem at first, then slowly forced to become part of it, still lost in the veggie-maiming turmoil.

Berberian Sound Studio is a fine psychological thriller with strong direction by Peter Strickland and a keenly subtle performance by Toby Jones. His dive into the macabre is gradual but inevitable, and as his easy-going, timid nature is buried by stress and uneasiness, the beast begins to come out, but never manifests itself strong enough to even get his travel expense account taken care of. The design and setting is macabre and spooky. Gilderoy is trapped in a maze of featureless grey halls and tiny recording rooms, surrounded by out-of-date reel-to-reel tape and audio recording equipment. Close-ups on the machinery make them especially grotesque and menacing. Never before on the screen has a reel of unspooling magnetic tape looked—and sounded—so sinister. The Italian flat Gilderoy is staying in is likewise dismal and drab, and there are absolutely no outdoor scenes (we're left wondering how Gilderoy gets to and from the studio or if he just dreams his way there). The tight set design creates a creepy unease. I experienced claustrophobia nearly as strong as Gilderoy did.

Strickland uses his tiny spaces effectively. The sets are tight and precise and the actors barge forward, pushing Gilderoy into tight corners; Chris Dickens's quick editing is exceptional when Gilderoy is cornered or dressed-down by his Italian employers. Fittingly enough for a movie about a sound engineer, we never see the film (The Equestrian Vortex) within the film (Berberian Sound Studio), with the exception of garish giallo opening credits. ("I thought you said something about equestrian?" Gilderoy asks, as we hear the gut-wrenching shrieks of a woman being brutally tortured. "It is," the producer replies casually, "she's just not horse-riding anymore.") The Equestrian Vortex is left to our horrible imaginations. We only hear it: the tearing and chopping of vegetables as audio stand-ins for severed limbs, the searing bubble of pork on a hot griddle to simulate a sexual assault with a red-hot poker, and the horrific screams of the unenthusiastic and frequently replaced actresses in the sound booth.

Berberian Sound Studio winds in on itself with a cryptic and potentially crippling ending: is Gilderoy trapped in the film he has been helping to make? Is the movie hell? Is the sound studio hell? Are we all just vegetables ready to be crushed for the entertainment of others? There's certainly no escape for Gilderoy, not to mention the poor vegetables. But we're left with a curious and growing belief that nothing's really happened, and several plot threads are completely dropped (was Gilderoy's flight to Italy a dream or real?). Is this the movies equivalent of "The End? title that accompanies so many horror movies?

Despite this weak ending (and unlike Santini's gorefest), this is ultimately witty, sophisticated suspense. There's beautifully and intricately designed close-up and technical cinematography and a sound performance by Toby Jones. Forgive its insubstantial conclusion with a thought of these and that for the first two-thirds Berberian Sound Studio is gripping and captivating. I recommend it. But to avoid causing them undue distress and terror, please, folks...leave your vegetables at home.

Berberian Sound Studio premiered at the 50th New York Film Festival on Friday, October 5; subsequent showtime on October 9.

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