Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland)
Always weird to find myself singing the praises of a horror film — even a strange one — because it’s such a rarity, but any film in any genre that rigorously and playfully examines the very nature of narrative cinema is bound to capture my heart at least a little. In the case of the creepy yet amusing (in the fashion of a George A. Romero film, or a Twilight Zone episode) Berberian Sound Studio, it probably helps that I happen to agree with its very subtly expressed combination of discomfort toward screen violence and affection for the craft and invention behind even films that don’t interest me much. Mostly it’s just fun — a weird, funny, surreal, clever thing that I found an utter delight.
The simple premise is one of the great traditional horror narratives turned on its head: the slow descent into madness. The film follows a mild-mannered, tormented foley artist who’s been duped into designing the sound on a Dario Argento-like gore picture in Italy. He’s never seen anything like it, as mild, bookish and gentle as Burgess Meredith’s character in “Time Enough at Last,” and spending hours a day in the company of this terrifying footage (which we the audience are never shown) and the horrible, demoralizing attitudes of the malcontents and dreadful power-mongering jerks behind the scenes does a number on the poor bloke, with even letters from his mother gradually creating nightmarish diversions. He’s the hapless everyman, but we are in his corner even when things go bad.
The setup and execution are all just a gimmick, really, as director Peter Strickland himself admitted — it’s merely a reversal of the status quo: instead of seeing the movie, we see the mechanics of the final product’s creation. But it comes around to its witty in-jokes on top of in-jokes in such an inventive manner — it’s the title sequence of the giallo The Equestrian Vortex we see, not Berberian Sound Studio; and at one point late in the film, everything stops dead for an improbable interpolation of the sort of material our man is used to working on: a pleasant BBC doco about Box Hill. The exuberant results are much closer to Orson Welles’ monumental F for Fake than to typical exercises in movie-within-movie smugness like the Tarantino-Rodriguez wankfest Grindhouse; the entirety of this subtle but richly evocative film says more about movies in 94 minutes than that film did in three-plus hours.
Toby Jones could not be more perfect as a kind, naive figure of slowly crumbling restraint, so complementary to the film’s melding of dreams, cinema and reality. His lost-in-translation alienation gets more and more confusing to him (and us), not less, as he spends time surrounded by the weird psychodramas of the film thrust upon him. The studio itself becomes a projection of horror tropes: the Carnival of Souls standoffish attitude of everyone, the barbaric treatment of actresses, the revenge fantasies, even the great misguided lesson of meekness prompting manipulation. Aside from boasting what must be the best run of gags and story points about movie post-production in history (with the sole exception of Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance), Berberian Sound Studio captures the essence of confusion about being somewhere you feel you don’t belong. As isolation begets obsession, Jones’ good-hearted gent becomes a bit of a monster, and yet really this is a film in which very little happens beyond what’s in our own twisted imaginations.
The Conversation and Session 9 will obviously come to mind, thanks to the reliance on (brilliant) sound design (helped by the eerie score from Broadcast), but I actually thought of Antichrist more than once — strictly because it’s another film that toys with horror routine while really being more about a feeling than a plot. In this case, despite the critiques of horror movie misogyny and gore, that feeling is a mighty enjoyable one, like thumbing through a childhood book of scary stories and giggling while you cower just a little bit under the covers. The only real debit is the film’s final scene, which makes too explicit the gears spinning behind the story’s vaguely horrific conclusion and is an ugly break in tone — but so much of this film is self-reflexive, you have to wonder if that’s deliberate as well. (Aren’t most of these movies ultimately disappointing by design?) More generally, the masterful substitution of food dismembering for actual violence and the general way in which we catch ourselves in Jones’ dreams and fears and mortified catching of the self is suggestive of no less than Hitchcock, who I bet would’ve been impressed by this; it’s a celebration of the joy and agony of creating, and pure cinema through and through.