MUBI Review: ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ and The Power of Sound

This review is part of our coverage for MUBI’s August 2019 slate.

“Which reel?”

“Forget the reel. I just need to scream. That’s all.”

There is no denial that Peter Strickland is emerging as one of the strongest contemporary genre filmmakers of the UK. With the kaleidoscopic The Duke of Burgundy and his most recent In Fabric, he displays his talent for something that one usually connects with the great genre filmmakers of the likes of Argento, De Palma and co., whose influence he wears proudly. Strickland has the sensibility to craft a thoroughly entertaining film that specifically concentrates on its aesthetic ideas and weaves them into central narrative concerns without running into danger of being gimmicky.

While In Fabric is fascinated with the image of a cursed piece of cloth on an elegant shop counter, and Duke of Burgundy with a submissive maid dusting off the glass of a butterfly collection, Strickland’s breakout film Berberian Sound Studio is invested into the texture of sound technology and the image of a woman screaming in silence.

Here Strickland fetishizes his giallo influences arguably more than in the rest of his body of work, as the film tells the story of Gilderoy, a British sound engineer (brilliantly embodied by Toby Jones), who arrives in Italy — the home of the giallo — to work on a film by an eccentric Italian director. He is quickly thrown off by the frustrating atmosphere of the workplace, which he had imagined so vividly.

Not only that, but instead of working on a children’s films, which he usually does, he was unknowingly summoned to work on a horror film that seems to show the gruesome death of several women in horrendous detail. Strickland chooses to not show us a single frame of that film. Instead, he lets us get an impression of the movie-inside-a-movie by displaying the process of post-production, as well as the character’s reaction to it. It’s a fascinating interplay between fiction and reality, which allows to carve out character detail that wouldn’t have been apparent in another context. Similarly to its main character, Berberian Sound Studio is obsessed with the detail of his work — entrancing montages of switches, sliders and reels, as well as smashed melons and squashed cabbage take the stage. They often mirror Gilderoy’s tunnel vision at work and get abruptly interrupted by his surroundings and the context of the film’s narrative. Gilderoy starts to slowly lose his mind, unable to concentrate and alienated by the foreign environment that wants him to adapt without help. He feels a sinister force that seems to lurk behind the project and its shady creators.

The film tells a story of realizing one’s complicity in violence and does it so imaginatively and creatively, that not a single second is any less than riveting entertainment. Editor Chris Dickens, who also is also known for Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, brings his trademark firework edits into play and gives the film the campy, flashy feel that it needs to pull its tonal balance off. The final product is a giallo-lite but embossed with Strickland’s sensibilities, which is infused with a sense of style and immaculate detail that trademark the film as unquestionably his.

Berberian Sound Studio was released on MUBI on August 18th, and will be available for 30 days on the site. You can check out the rest of our MUBI Coverage here.


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