It's rare for a movie to be so cool yet also so disappointing. On paper, I should be doing back flips about this movie, but Berberian Sound Studio is a good reminder of a simple truth - if there's no story and no compelling characters, there's no movie, no matter how awesome the setting.
But let's allow ourselves a moment to revel in what will grant BBS a small studio apartment in the heart of any true film lover. Toby Jones is a mild British sound designer in the late 1970s/early 1980s that's been summoned to Italy. His new gig is to work for a bullying Italian producer and lothario director on a classic Bava/Argento-esque giallo.
All we actually see of The Equestrian Vortex is the opening credits - a masterpiece of imitation, right down to the fonts and Goblin-esque music from a fake band called Hypnotera. Jones' job is to oversee Foley (there are more smashed melons in this film than at a Gallagher concert) as well as to record all of the dialogue tracks. (Italian films of the time - and maybe still today? - never use location sound for dialogue.)
We soon discover that Jones is a bit of a fussbucket, and much more familiar and comfortable with BBC nature documentaries than films that include hot pokers being shoved up a woman's vagina. Berberian's director Peter Strickland makes the interesting decision to never show what Jones is seeing. We only watch how it affects him as we dwell on the sickening sounds.
Through Jones we get to meet the dysfunctional family of this little production outfit. What at first seems like bickering turns into genuine anger and fear on behalf of the women actresses to the two men in charge. Jones' requests to get reimbursed on his flight are constantly ignored, which is the first indication that this all may be some sort of bad dream.
What follows is a very long slog through many, many scenes of sound design and sound mixing. To anyone who digs analogue tech (hey! he made a long loop by stringing tape through two machines on reels all the way across the room! people actually did crap like that?) this is truly a gas to watch. To others, however, simply observing a man at work intercut with close-ups of whirring machines may not be enough.
Ominous sounds fade in and out over Jones' notations, the boxes and lines surely meant to evoke something, but the meaning is just out of reach. Eventually, he finds himself going mad and then something really nifty happens on screen that I don't feel like spoiling, but it reminded me quite a bit of Ingmar Bergman's Persona.
Prior to this third act development Berberian Sound Studio longs to be something like Barton Fink meets Italian Blow-Out. It doesn't really reach this, though, because Jones' character, while sympathetic, is way too much of a blank slate. The Italian men are too cartoony to be taken seriously and the women, alas, are all interchangeable.
When this narrative break occurs, the story continues in a way similar to David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. Tonally, very cool, but by this point the fundamental letdown of the film prevents us from taking the full, surreal trip needed.
Frankly, it's a bit of a shame. No one fetishizes old filmmaking crap like me. I don't regret sticking with this film and certainly recommend it to likeminded people and anyone who is a fan of giallo. Keep your expectations in check and you may find yourself having a trippy good time.