Saturday, November 3, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Berberian Sound Studio"

Director: Peter Strickland
Runtime: 92 minutes

Though Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is fascinating in its glimpse into the work of sound engineers, it ultimately wears out its welcome. Despite the potential of the premise, this slow-burning thriller runs out of steam quite quickly, and tries to save itself by jumping head first into the deep end. It doesn't really help matters.

Set in the 70s, Strickland's film quickly introduces us to Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound engineer. Gilderoy has been hired by an eccentric Italian horror director to create and mix the sounds for his latest giallo film. Once in the studio, Gilderoy must contend with fussy co-workers, an egotistical director, and actors who struggle to match the director's vision for his film. 

At its best, Sound Studio shows us the amount of effort that goes in to dubbing in almost an entire film's worth of dialogue and sound effects. Whether it's ripping turnips from their stems to simulate hair pulling, or crushing watermelons to evoke a body landing on a curbside, these instances provide an entertaining look into the world of sound. And yet, at only 92 minutes, Strickland's film wears out this angle rather quickly. It doesn't take long before one starts to wish for something more. At best, we get a subplot involving an actress' affair with a director, which amounts to little more than a setback. Strickland also seems to think that repeatedly emphasizing Gilderoy's lackluster social skills somehow enhances the narrative. Like the sound design scenes, it only works for a brief period of time. 

The result of all of this is that the first two acts of the film feel underdeveloped. Just as Gilderoy finds the repetitive nature of his job tiresome, so do the repetitive scenes of recording session lose their appeal. It's a shame because Jones is trying his best to find something to work with underneath the undercooked execution. Credit should also go to the rich, muted cinematography and, as would be expected considering the story, the sound design. The film is a technical marvel, initially buoyed by intrigue and a surprising amount of low key humor. Unfortunately they feel completely stagnant, as though Strickland wants to make sure that the audience "gets it" before segueing into the final act. 

And what a mess of a final act it is. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the repetitive nature of the first two thirds, act three goes into full blown David Lynch nightmare mode. However, it does so without earning an ounce of it. Art starts to imitate life, and the authenticity of the story comes into question. Gilderoy wanders from his bed into a room with a projector, only to have the project show a movie what he just did. Yet because the motivations and circumstances are far too vague, it frustrates much more than it intrigues. The further Strickland tries to pull us down the rabbit hole, the more you wish he would just back off and explain what on earth he's trying to do. For once, a little Christopher Nolan-esque exposition would be a welcome addition. 

What's left is a wasted opportunity. Toby Jones has been looking for another great leading role ever since his excellent turn in the under-seen Infamous (2006). This could have and should have been his next triumph as an indie leading man. But Strickland and his screenplay undercut the talented leading man at every turn. Berberian Sound Studio is full of potential, but it only makes anything of said potential for about half an hour. After that, it's merely frustratingly inert, before becoming hopelessly bizarre in some desperate attempt to be achieve meaning. Yet by the time the film cuts to black, we're left every bit as mystified as Gilderoy, watching himself projected by the unseen force of his nightmares.

Grade: C

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