How often do you hear praise on a film’s sound design? Typically, this is one of those compliments that happens when someone is desperate to say something positive about a movie. Along with “great costumes” or “fantastic set design”, these are the general compliments given when the more high profile qualities, performances, direction, etc., are less than stellar. But, in truth, what is a film without these components? Without question, good sound design is vital for a film’s success. The curse of its utilitarian design, though, means that when it is effective it is unnoticed. In a loving, and innately strange, tribute Berberian Sound Studio, written and directed by Peter Strickland, aims to not only fix this oversight, but to revel in the sounds it is obviously in love with. From sliced melons, to sizzling water, these moments silently(slight pun intended) form an audiences filmgoing experience, and Berberian Sound Studio lets us all know it.
Berberian Sound Studio is less story and more experience. The arrival of sound engineer Gilderoy(Toby Jones) to a post-production studio for an Italian Giallo film is about as in-depth as the plot gets as far as narrative progression. There are story lines, and there are motivations, but they are fluid and secondary to the main purpose of the film. That purpose is to force the audience to really revel in the atmosphere of the Giallo. From color schemes, to camera angles, to the inevitable sound design, Berberian Sound Studio is first and foremost an exercise in craft. It feels almost like a direct rebuttal to those people who only acknowledge these less obvious elements of filmmaking when struggling for superlatives. This film is all craft, all the time. It drips with the sounds of horror, which is mainly provided by fruit destruction and cued screams. This film is that. It isn’t a story with “fantastic sound design” or “great lighting schemes”, it is all sound design and lighting scheme.
With that conceit given, the enjoyability of this film is even more subjective than typical in film. If you enjoyed the classics of Italian horror you will enjoy at least enjoy a large portion of this film’s presentation. If you have no idea what a Giallo is, this film may just seem strange and meandering to you. The real question is, however, does this exercise provide enough stimulation to carry an entire film? This, again, is mostly subjective.
The film itself seems self-aware of that question, managing to offer up a handful of mini-arcs and nebulous character stories that float through the movie. None of these are cohesive or lasting enough to qualify as a plot, but they do capture small vignette’s of what makes Italian Horror so great. These moments feel more like small parts of a larger amusement park ride. Think of it as “It’s a Small Giallo World After All”.
And that’s really the crux of the enjoyably of Berberian Sound Studio. If you are welcome to a sense-driven nostalgia trip through the great Italian films of that time period, this film will undoubtedly please you. If, though, you are expecting something a bit more standard, maybe something along the lines that the synopsis of the film promises, you may find yourself disappointed.