Oct 21, 2015
Day 21: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)
Dear marketing departments, will you ever learn? I know that sometimes a film will come along and it doesn't fit neatly into one-a-dem genre boxes. You sit around your big cherry wood table in your glass-walled conference room with your uneaten pastries and your padfolios and your potted plants in the corner, and then Amanda Woodward comes in and she's asking an awful lot of questions about your boyfriend Billy and it's so awkward, like is Amanda just trying to make you uncomfortable, you know, get in your head and psych you out, or does she really have designs on Billy? She's your boss and your landlord and you want to tell her off, but the personal risks are too great, and then you remember that time you were molested and also you realize that you have a stalker and--
Sorry. My understanding of the world of business is that it's pretty much just like D&D Advertising on Melrose Place. The point is, surely it's a PR conundrum when a movie isn't plainly one thing or another. "Thrillers" are expected to play out like this while "dramas" go like that...and if it's just some kind of mish-mash...eh, fuck it, throw it to the horror kids. They'll take it! It's like as a people we learned nothing from the horrible mis-marketing of William Friedkin's Bug, which did a great disservice to the film and pissed off horror fans who were expecting...well, something scary, or at least horror-y.
And so here we are with Berberian Sound Studio, which is supposedly a "tribute to the giallo." Here we are with Berberian Sound Studio, wherein "A sound engineer's work for an Italian horror studio becomes a terrifying case of life imitating art." I mean, if you go into Berberian Sound Studio with those seeds a-planted in your head, you would have certain expectations of the cinematic harvest, would you not? If so, well, spoiler alert, you're gonna experience some cognitive dissonance. Whether or not that affects your enjoyment and/or appreciation of BSS...I have no spoiler alert for that because I'm not your brain, sorry.
From the moment Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at Berberian Sound Studio, he is a man out of place. His quiet, unassuming nature does not serve him well in the brash world of the Italian horror industry. In fact, he was unaware that he would be working as a sound engineer on a horror film–the typically giallo-esque title The Equestrian Vortex led him to assume it was the type of nature film that usually composes his wheelhouse. Instead, actresses scream in the recording booth as foley artists hack up watermelons with machetes. Poor Gilderoy is hit with all sorts of culture shock.
Things only get worse as time goes on. The toxic relationship between the actresses and the men making the film reflects the violence in The Equestrian Vortex, violence we only hear and have described to us. In the film-within-the-film, women are stabbed...drowned in boiling water. Their hair is ripped out, and red-hot pokers are thrust into their vaginas. Gilderoy is the only one to find any of it repellent, and the producer admonishes him with the ol' "It's only a movie!" The effect is a bit sobering as a horror fan. Hearing those acts described, they sound positively degenerate, but haven't I seen much of that and more in the works of Fulci, etc? Sure, it's only a movie. But an unexamined life is not worth living, right? Basically it brought to the forefront of my brain place various questions I've had and still have about my relationship with horror movies. This is not a bad thing, I don't think, and it's very personal.
Meanwhile, in the studio, the actresses are treated like meat: pushed beyond their breaking points, berated, and sexually assaulted by the director. All of it is too much for Gilderoy. Compound his discomfort with acute homesickness and financial issues (he can't get reimbursed for his plane ticket) and he is a man on the edge. But the edge of what? If you're expecting "a terrifying case of life imitating art", well, I'll tell you this: Gilderoy does not, you know, flip out and start stabbing people. While events absolutely lead to a mental break and life and art do mesh together, Berberian Sound Studio does not evolve into a "horror movie" in its final reel. Nor is there a neat-little-package resolution.
I didn't find this a disappointing ending or a disappointing film; in fact, I rather loved it. It is scrumptious to behold (those DRESSES), and the limited sets never feel redundant. It's definitely an arthouse thriller that gives a high-five to gialli without attempting to be a giallo in any way, so it's understandable if fans expecting a straight-up horror flick were peeved at what they got. That's not Berberian's fault, however, and all complaints in that regard should be directed to Amanda Woodward, President of D&D Advertising.