Berberian Sound Studio: Edinburgh Review

Offbeat mix of psychological suspense and dark humor can't quite sustain the originality of its bizarre premise.

Toby Jones stars in the dark comedy following the misadventures of a sound-mixer in 1970s Italy.

EDINBURGH - The nightmarish side of moviemaking is imaginatively if unevenly dramatized in writer-director Peter Strickland's sophomore effort Berberian Sound Studio, the most critically lauded of the Edinburgh's 18 world premieres. Starring superlative British character-actor Toby Jones in a rare lead role, this UK/Germany co-production follows the misadventures of a timid sound-mixer working on a grisly shocker in 1970s Italy. But while the plethora of sly references and in-jokes will delight genre aficionados and cinephiles, a third-act spiral from queasy dark comedy into more ambitious David Lynch-ish territory will likely leave more general audiences frustrated. The film therefore looks likely to emulate Strickland's Transylvania-set 2009 debut Katalin Varga and enjoy a lengthy festival run followed by small-scale art-house distribution and small-screen sales.

Evidently inspired by such inside-baseball predecessors as Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Brian De Palma's Blow Out, Strickland displays intimate knowledge of the lurid Italian 1960s-80s giallo wave of violent thrillers and horrors from the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martini. Familiarity with these pictures isn't essential to get the gist of what's going on in Berberian Sound Studio, but it certainly helps.

Taken on its own terms, the film works as a character-study of fortysomething, mild-mannered, workaholic Gilderoy (Jones) - first name or surname? - a fish out of water amid these tempestuous southern-Europeans. The film-within-the-film The Equestrian Vortex - directed by the flamboyant Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) and seemingly modeled on Argento's masterpiece Suspiria - of which we see only the amusingly ludicrous opening-titles. We watch Gilderoy and company, including bad-tempered producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), watching the movie - for which the Studio, in accordance with typical practices of the day, provides the entire soundtrack.

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This includes spoken dialogue - all of it suitably nonsensical - spooky susurrations and guttural groans, plus the sound-effects for hideous murders and tortures courtesy of some severely maltreated fruit and vegetables. Strickland thus milks steady laughs from the contrasts between the elaborate phantasmagoria on screen ("the dangerously aroused goblin prowls the dormitory") and studio's mundane goings-on as Gilderoy - whose background is in low-key documentaries - adjusts to his surroundings.

But it soon becomes apparent that there may be rather more going on here than meets the eye - or ear. Jennifer Kernke's oppressively detailed production-design, with its Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-era technology, and the repetitive nature of the scenes - all of which take place either in the studio or in Gilderoy's cozy accommodations, never in the open air - contribute to a claustrophobically unsettling atmosphere, further boosted by the period-chanelling score by post-rock combo Broadcast. Even Gilderoy's letters from his mother in leafy Surrey take on sinister aspects, as the sound-mixer's exposure to Santini's blood-drenched world causes him to lose his grip on sanity.

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Berberian Sound Studio stirs together an odd range of moods, which Strickland is able to balance and develop with confident aplomb - with the crucial aid of the hard-working sound-design team led by Joakim Sundström - but only up to a certain point. As Gilderoy starts going off the rails, so does the movie, its occasional Lynchian touches expanding to the point that originality ebbs disappointingly away into over-familiar zones of stylish disorientation.

As we wonder if Gilderoy is - like the protagonist of Argento's Tenebrae - more menace than victim, it seems increasingly likely that the whole thing may actually be taking place inside his head. Is the Studio some kind of purgatory in which he's being forced to examine the darker recesses of his own imagination and his misdeeds? Dream-sequences, hallucinations and fantasies messily combine to subsume whatever slender narrative threads had sustained the picture's momentum, and the open-ended climax feels both pretentious and a cop-out. That said, Berberian Sound Studio deserves credit for its boldness and wit, and throughout its occasionally belabored convolutions remains a sterling showcase for Jones's uniquely hangdog mournfulness.

Production companies: Illuminations Films, Warp X
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Mancino, Salvatore Li Cusi
Director / Screenwriter: Peter Strickland
Producers: Keith Griffiths, Mary Burke
Co-producer: Hans W Geissendorfer
Director of photography: Nic Knowland
Production designer: Jennifer Kernke
Costume designer: Julian Day
Music: Broadcast
Editor: Chris Dickens
Sales Agent: The Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 92 minutes.