Berberian Sound Studio – Review (EIFF 2012 – #edfilmfest)

Often, in films, what is unseen is far more terrifying or powerful than what is seen. The shark in Jaws is scary right up until you see it flopping plastically on the deck of the boat. In Japanese cinema a death is often evoked by the splash of red blood on a white screen without actually seeing the beheading. The nature of film is such that most of the time we know that we are watching a film, so seeing something immediately and realistically is often not as effective as horror happening off-screen. If the terror is left to the imagination then it gets inside our heads far more strongly: what scares us is not the creation of the screen but a product of our own brains. For these reasons, Berberian Sound Studio may just be the most unnerving, thrilling film of the year.

The plot is simple: Toby Jones plays someone that mixes sound for films, who is employed to work on a gruesome Italian horror film, only he doesn’t like horror. In fact, he finds the whole thing disturbing and tasteless. That’s essentially it – it follows him as he works on this film and attempts to deal with the troublesome cast and crew. At a very basic level it is a fascinating insight into the work of foley artists and sound mixers, and makes you realise the importance of sound in film. Yet it is also a gripping thriller as the noises of death and violence begin to infect the mind of Jones’ Gilderoy. He knows that, although he is fully aware of the artifice of cinema, occasionally it can stray into a darkness that is simply unhealthy.

It’s an intriguing point for a film to be making – it makes you aware of it’s own created, unreal nature yet at the same time holds you entirely in its thrall. Fittingly for a film about this element of cinema, Berberian Sound Studio features some of the most effective uses of sound ever committed to screen. Every squelch of a watermelon, every boxed in scream, every whirr of a projector is pitched at the perfect level, amplified or dampened to make it as disconcerting and as uneasy as possible. And by repeatedly showing the inner workings of how a film’s audio mix is created, it forces the audience to question the reality of what they are hearing, yet maintaining a consistent sense of dread throughout. What makes Berberian… particularly special, however, is knowing when and how to use silence just as potently.

We are never shown a single shot of the film being made, aside from some jarring opening credits that establish the uneasy atmosphere. But then, we don’t need to see any of it. The horror is evoked so well through a the spinning reels and flickering lights of the projection, and through the subtle shifts in Toby Jones’ face. It’s a restrained performance, capturing perfectly a buttoned up Britishness that clashes with the more blasé approach of the Italians. There’s a sense of moral indignation in the way his eyes close ever so slightly, expressing a feeling that something isn’t right. It’s a feeling that grows towards the end of the film as the film begins to infect Gilderoy’s (and, by proxy, the audience’s too) consciousness. It’s a dazzling finale in a film that manages to be both blackly funny and horrifying at the same time. But unlike a clutch of modern horrors, it does this by showing the audience as little as possible, meaning that this powerful, intelligent film will get under your skin in a way nothing else does. An incredible, cinematic experience.

About The Author


Nat (or Nathanael as he calls himself when he wants to sound a bit classier) is a student based in Edinburgh who watches far too many animated films for a guy his age. He even has a blog. dedicated to the subject. When he's not doing that, he's the film editor of The Journal, Edinburgh and a committed member of King's Church Edinburgh. He likes Terrence Malick far, far too much.

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