Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The sound and the fury: Peter Strickland's smart, obvious BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

The first thing you may notice about BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, the new narrative movie about movie-making and personality dissolution by Peter Strickland (shown below), is that its opening credits are not for the movie, the title of which appears above, but for another film entirely -- a movie-within-the-movie called The Equestrian Vortex -- for which our protagonist, Gilderoy (great moniker!), who resides with his mother in England, has been hired to come to Italy to the titular studio and provide the sound effects for that film. This is rather fun, and different, and should give you a sense of what is to come: a movie of mis-, or more precisely, other-direction.

The time is the 1970s when the country and culture of Italy was known, not only for Fellini and Visconti, but also for Argento and giallo, the latter being those sleazy-but-fun slasher movies with which the Italians had gifted the world during that famous "me" decade. So here we are then, with Gilderoy (played by the unique Toby Jones, haloed in light at left, below) -- a quiet, rather repressed and genteel fellow with a mother complex (her letters to him and the importance these hold for him make up a certain portion of the film) -- as he works on the many sounds for the movie at hand. He also, literally from the first moment he arrives at the studio, is treated like shit, refused to be reimbursed for his travel expenses, and generally taken advantage of right, left and center.

Mr. Strickland's eye is fond of going, if not where we least expect it (of course we're going to see Gilderoy at work), where most other movie-makers absolutely would: to footage of the film that has been shot for which all these sound effects -- mostly screaming by some pretty young-to-middle-aged women, one of whom is shown below -- are needed. Can you think of another movie in which we never see, aside from that nicely-done and of-its-time credit sequence, one frame of the film at hand? Neither can I. Instead, we get a lot of footage showing us from where these "slashing" sounds emanate: vegetables and fruit (watermelon is the star of one fine sequence) being mutilated by knives and hatchets.

In another nice moment, Gilderoy shows us how to turn, aurally, a little light bulb into a UFO. All this is indeed fun, and Mr. Jones is, as always, a delight to watch. If you have never seen him do the best Capote turn ever (yes, yes: Hoffman is good and all, but Jones is better) in Infamous, then you have missed a simply wonderful, rich, original movie. So where does all this visual mis-direction and abuse of Gilderoy lead us? Into the dissolving of the poor fellow's personality. Which is interesting to view, for a time. But because it is clear, and very early on, that this is where we are headed, the movie has almost no surprise and finally not all that much interest.

Toward the finale, when the dissolution of character seems near complete, there is a marvelous sequence combining an English documentary with striking sound, artwork and editing that is a  visual and aural feast. And the performances by the Italians (if you've ever felt snubbed in a foreign country, these scenes will bring it all home) are wonderfully on-the-mark. Almost carried to the point of satire, they stop just short of that and leave you fuming for poor Gilderoy. (That's Cosimo Fusco, above, left, who plays the venal and nasty producer, and Tonia Sotiropoulou, below, left, as the lazy and nasty office assistant.)

Thinking about the movie now, in retrospect, Berberian Sound Studio seems more enjoyable than it did as I was watching. At 88 minutes, the movie began, around the halfway point, to bore, and I never recovered from that. Everything we have to learn from it, we pretty much already have by the midway point. What the film is doing in the IFC Midnight series (in which you'll usually find lots of blood and gore, as per the upcoming Maniac remake, for instance) is anybody's guess. Far too intelligent, precise and subtle for that audience, it'll bore 'em to distraction. This is an "art film," pure and (a little too) simple that gives away its hand a little too soon.

The movie opens this Friday, June 14, in New York City at the IFC Center and will get a midnight screening at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn on June 21. In the Los Angeles area, it also opens this Friday, June 14, at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and the Downtown Independent in downtown L.A. If you're elsewhere, not to worry: There is always VOD, via which it will also open this Friday in most major markets. Consult your TV reception provider for specifics.

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