Berberian Sound Studio [2012]

Notice: spoilers.

I think the official summary for this film might run a little like this:

A diminutive sound technician finds himself in Italy producing the sound effects for a “gialo” film – a horror/slasher – and finds himself gradually losing his grip on events and reality amidst his larger-than-life Italian co-workers.

This should invoke the subtle spectrum of the psychological thriller, beginning with Gaslight [1944], mastered in the decades after WWII by Alfred Hitchcock and most recently achieving mass critical acclaim in Black Swan [2010]. Our sensation of Gilderoy becoming unsure about reality is the dark twin of Scotty’s obsession in Vertigo [1958]. Indeed, many of the scenes are darkly fascinating, and the production is wonderfully evocative, appropriately enough powered by an eerie soundscape. Silence is powerfully used to evoke a sense of isolation and claustrophobia that dovetails perfectly with the blackened sound stage where the action unfolds.

The trouble is that Peter Strickland isn’t Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s most powerful technique was to understand that terror comes from anticipation – his famous example was that if you film a conversation with a bomb of uncertain detonation under the table, that’s instant tension. Hitchcock himself used that technique amazingly in his masterpiece, Rope [1948], and it is essentially the premise of the absolutely mind-blowing opening scene from Inglourious Basterds [2009]. The possibilities for what might be under the table in the recording of a gialo soundtrack don’t need much articulation from me for you to get the idea. All of the appropriate touches are in place – the disarming, but ultimately dark letters from home, the sexual politics of the production, the menace immediately behind the extravagant friendliness of the producer and director, the Kafta-esque bureaucracy that disorients Gilderoy.

And yet… there is no bomb under the table. In the last ten minutes, there is some bizarre inter-cutting of Gilderoy’s real life with cinema, so that we see him repeating discussions, now dubbed into Italian, and so forth. But this is more surreal than terrifying, and it is more confusing than evocative. It lends itself to the simplest explanation- that Gilderoy has simply gone crazy. Since we have no perspective other than his, that’s dramatically inert – as if you stopped watching Shutter Island [2010] just as Teddy makes it to the Lighthouse Island. Without giving us any clue as to what’s going on, it functions purely as a bit of weirdness. As a mood piece, it was successful, but as a narrative… even Goddard admitted that a film must have a beginning, middle and end (though, he continued, not necessarily in that order). This felt like the longest set-up for the shortest middle, and missing an ending altogether.

This film had all the technique it needed, but it couldn’t capitalise on it. For all that Hitchcock was the master of selling his work, I think he doesn’t get enough credit for the powerful follow-through on the chilling and unsettling suggestions which power the first half of his films. Psycho [1960], for example, just doesn’t work if we don’t see Bates’ mother’s corpse – it would become a frangible narrative, having no impact. The bomb needn’t actually explode, but it must generate some genuine story action aside from creating tension. This is simple story economy, in that a narrative filled with things that do nothing is going to be unbearably long and unfocused.

Berberian Sound Studio needs another act, an act where something, almost anything, happens.

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