Monday, August 12, 2013

Sound and Vision

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

When I was describing Berberian Sound Studio (2012, directed by Peter Strickland) to a friend of mine shortly after I left the theater, his response was "Oh, so it's Blow Out?" I laughed, because that's kind of what I thought from the synopsis I had read of the film prior to heading out to see it. But, no. It's not Blow Out, though it does share with that film a narrative built overtly on the craft of filmmaking--of sound, in particular--as text rather than as form and it does crib Blow Out's best joke. Like Blow Out, it's almost impossible to divorce Berberian Sound System from the patterns of influence exerted from other movies. This is true of most movies, I think, but Berberian Sound System is different. Its touchstones are deliberately invoked as talismans or dire warnings throughout rather than as homages or casual swipes. It's also a boldly experimental plunge into cinema as complete abstraction. It builds a formidable sense of menace mainly through sound divorced from image. An audience for horror movies might be forgiven for chafing at the way this film plunges off the narrative deep end in its last act, but I found it thrilling.

The story here follows a sound designer, Gilderoy, as he arrives in Italy to work on a movie sometime in the 1970s. That movie turns out to be "The Equestrian Vortex," a credible mash-up of several Italian horror movies from the period. We never see any footage for this film apart from its startling credit sequence, which plays where the credit sequence for the real-world film, Berberian Sound Studio, ought to play. That's the first hint that this is some kind of epistemological delirium. Gilderoy is a fish out of water. Worse, he's chum in a pool of sharks. The head shark is the film's producer, Francesco, who gives Gilderoy unsolicited advice on how to comport himself and gives him the runaround when it comes to the business of paying Gilderoy for his flight to Italy. Only slightly less menacing are Santini, the womanizing director who "casts the film with his dick" and who has a pretentious conception of what kind of film he's making. Even the receptionist, the gorgeous, hostile Elena, seems complicit in Gilderoy's misery. Still, Gilderoy is an artist, and he gets to work on the sound of the film, working with the foley artists, who massacre various fruits and vegetables to get the sound of mayhem down, and the actresses hired to post-dub dialogue and screams. One of these is Sylvia, who has been seduced and abandoned by Santini. She wants revenge, and conspires to sabotage the film. Meanwhile, Gilderoy's grasp of reality has come unhinged. The images he sees in the film disturb him and invade his dreams. Soon, he finds it difficult to distinguish between the film and reality. Late in the film, Gilderoy's reality fractures, and with it, so does the film. In place of narrative, we have a dream fugue that builds on the soundscape the first part of the film has built...

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

As you might expect from a movie that's set in a sound studio, this is a movie in which sound is paramount. We never, ever, see any of the footage for The Equestrian Vortex, but through the sounds that the movie makes both in the frame and outside it, we get a pretty good idea of what it's about and what it puts on screen. It's not only sound, though. This is an unusually sensory film, one that engages the hearing directly, but which also evokes responses from the other five senses. The textures of vegetables are lovingly shown in close up. The smell of rotting food is suggested by a pit full of the food items that have been massacred in the name of mimicking dismemberments. One of the Foley artists hands Gilderoy a watermelon to eat. Unlike other, similarly sensory films, this mostly intends to revolt the audience. It's a substitute for actual onscreen violence.

There's a point at the beginning of this film's third act when the film itself burns away to reveal the kinds of banal documentaries Gilderoy made back in England. This comes after Gilderoy slips into a recursive version of his own movie. This sequence is a farewell to naturalism as the film becomes oneiric. In retrospect, the filmmakers have been foreshadowing this from the outset, with its repeated shots of a sign flashing a red "Silenzio," as a callback to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which features a similar break from narrative. Typical of this film's setting, it communicates this break through sound: Gilderoy, a fish out of water early in the film, suddenly becomes fluent in Italian and he becomes something of a sadist with sound, using it to try to elicit a better scream from one of his voice actresses.

Toby Jones and Fatma Mohamed in Berberian Sound Studio

In truth, I'm not really sure what happens at the end of this movie. I'm not even sure it matters. This isn't a film about plot points; it's not a film that wants to give you a story, so much as it's a film that wants to evoke moods and emotions. It's a film that provides symbols: rotting vegetables, sound equipment, whispered dialogue about witches and torture. For all that, its indictment of the misogyny before and behind the camera in certain sectors of cinema is pointed and in the text of the film rather than coded in symbols. The film's most striking moment, a screaming actress in a soundbooth, is as much a manifestation of feminine (and feminist) rage as anything. What makes this film disturbing is the way it suggests that Gilderoy becomes inured to this rage, and becomes coopted by the film's internal patriarchy in the end. In doing so, he loses himself.

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