Film Review: Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio

1970’s Italian giallo is not a film movement that is as widely celebrated as most others. It doesn’t get the same focus as German expressionism or surrealism but it’s nonetheless as striking, and it’s these films that writer/director Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a timid English sound engineer used to working on picturesque nature documentaries. However, he is summoned to work on Italian giallo film The Equestrian Vortex and must do sound work on various horrifying scenes of torture. After days upon weeks of stabbing vegetables and being bullied by the film’s director and producer, the disturbing scenes he’s providing sound for slowly start seeping into his consciousness and he starts losing his grip on reality.

Berberian Sound Studio is a real assault on the senses. The vividness of colour used is striking, with reds and yellows in particular, as often the case in giallo flicks, accentuated to the fore. As you’d expect, the sound in the film is also very important and quite spectacular. Virtually every scene is defined by its impressive use of sound, whether it is the click of tape recorders, screaming actresses, or the complete absence of sound entirely. Here, the lack of sound can be just as arresting.

Toby JonesThe sound is particularly important as we are never actually shown anything of the film Gilderoy is working on other than the lurid title sequence. Therefore, we only have the sound and dialogue to judge how distressing it is. This impressive visual and aural presentation of the film is outstandingly brought together by Chris Dickens’ editing, frantic one minute and drawn out the next.

Whereas the film excels in its presentation, it falls down somewhat on narrative, namely in its final third. Up to that point it builds slowly and draws a surprising amount of suspense out of the often banal environment of the sound studio. Something as dull as Gilderoy trying to recover his flight expenses somehow takes on sinister undertones. Toby Jones is excellent as the mild-mannered Gilderoy and there are a few touching moments that show his passion for his work. For example, when he imitates a UFO using nothing but a lightbulb and a radiator, it shows just how inventive the craft of foley really is.

However, when we do get to the film’s final third, the intriguing, brooding story developed thus far all of a sudden becomes utterly devoid of narrative coherence. It’s clearly a comment on Gilderoy’s state of mind, but it turns what was an intriguingly unsettling story into something almost incomprehensible. The ideas displayed are interesting and as visually and aurally impressive as what’s gone before but it does feel like somewhat of a let down.

For sound and film tech buffs, Berberian Sound Studio is no doubt a treat with the various pieces of equipment used, and it no doubt will resonate more with those familiar with Italian giallo. For those not well versed in either, there’s less to grab hold of but it’s a stimulating cinematic experience nonetheless.

3 and a half pigeons

3.5/5 pigeons

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38 thoughts on “Film Review: Berberian Sound Studio

  1. keith7198 says:

    Nice!!! I’ve never heard of this film and my knowledge and I’m not well versed in that movement. But live posts that serve as introductions for me! Great job my friend.

  2. Gonna watch it this week. Really looking forward to seeing how they incorporate the Broadcast score. Sweet review!

  3. Excellent write-up! I love giallo films, so will have to give this one a try!

  4. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I heard about this a while ago and I’m really interested in seeing it. I like Toby Jones, so I hope this is good.

  5. filmhipster says:

    I just couldn’t get into this one. It’s visually interesting but the story just fell flat for me.

  6. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent review man! I’ve had a draft of this lying for a while and we agree on several things. I left it a while to settle in but it still takes a bizarre narrative turn and doesn’t fully recover.

    • Cheers Mark! Yeah it left me really confused as to what the hell was going on. Just when I thought I was starting to get back on track with it, it would do something else that completely threw me. I read a theory that none of the events in the film actually existed and that it was all in his head having killed his mother! Bizarre! Very intrigued to read your review mate.

  7. Tyson Carter says:

    Seen some mixed stuff for this. Some say its incredible, others say its terrible. Polarising film by all accounts. Nice write up as always buddy

    • To be honest, i’m somewhere in the middle! I enjoyed it for the most part but couldn’t get on with the ending. You should check it out the mate, it does have some horror themes running through it. Thanks Tyson!

  8. claratsi says:

    Very good review. I am posting this tomorrow, I have to say I was disappointed after hearing it was the next classic! It is certainly an audio trip but ultimately it doesn’t deliver on it’s promise and as you rightly say it falls away, quite badly in my view. definitely not as good or as bad as some quarters would have it but just average for me.

  9. ruth says:

    I’ve never heard about this film before, but Toby Jones is a great actor. Not sure I’m all that enthused to see it though Chris.

    • It’s a difficult one to recommend to be honest Ruth. It’s impressively put together, it looks and sounds brilliant but its narrative lets it down, I feel. Still, I know you quite enjoyed Holy Motors so you may like this.

  10. barronlouise says:

    I notice this film when it won an award, i cannot recall what it is, but im intrigued with the title, so i think, ill give this a watch, albeit i find it weird. :), great review sir 🙂

  11. Great write-up, Chris! I think I’ll check this movie out.

  12. Beer Movie says:

    Awesome review man. I have been hearing about this a fair bit recently. I am not that familiar with giallo films though. Do you think that is an issue with watching the film?

    • Thanks! I’m not familiar with giallo films either, I’ve not seen any! There might be certain stuff you miss out on (not that i’d know if i’d missed out on it!) if you don’t know the genre that well but I doubt it would alienate you from it. The ending might, however 🙂

  13. Popcorn Nights says:

    Nice one Chris, interesting review. This is on my Lovefilm list and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I’d never heard the term Foley before so thanks for that, have just been looking into it more now. Sounds like a very unusual film. I’m not really familiar with giallo either but will read up on it when I have it ready to watch.

    • Thanks! Foley was a new one to me to be honest Stu, i stumbled across it when researching the film. But I like that it actually has its own term!
      It is a very unusual film. It’s weird enough for two thirds but goes proper crazy in the last third. Apparently it’s quite David Lynch-esque. Shockingly, I’ve never seen a David Lynch film so can’t confirm or deny the comparison but it’s apparently quite similar.

  14. sati says:

    Great review! I heard of the film few times before and I definitely want to see it, it sounds like a very well executed story.

    • Thanking you! It is well executed for the most part and then it seems to just abandon the story completely in favour of weird dream-like sequences where it’s almost impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not. I would still say it’s worth a watch though.

  15. Another one I’d really like to see soon! Great review.

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