Gilderoy is an English sound recordist and mixer and foley artist hired to travel to Berberian Sound Studio in Italy and perform work on a new film entitled Il vortice equestre (The Equestrian Vortex in English). To Gilderoy’s surprise and dismay, the film turns out to be an extremely violent supernatural horror picture. The film’s content, along with Gilderoy’s experiences while performing his work, seem to have an unbalancing effect on his psyche, as he gradually appears to lose his ability to tell the difference between cinema and reality…
Gilderoy? Come on, who names a character “Gilderoy” and expects us to take the character seriously in this post-Harry Potter landscape?
All facetiousness aside, though…this is a film that has a lot going for it. Damn-near-legendary character actor Toby Jones (if you’ve watched movies over the past ten years, you’ve seen something that Toby Jones was in) puts in a fantastic performance as Gilderoy, whose passive-aggressive and slightly confused Britishness never flags as the laws of cause and effect seem to break down around him. The supporting cast is strong as well.
Appropriately enough for a film that focuses on the role sound plays in cinema, the sonic aspect is where the production really shines, with effects and music (the haunting soundtrack by indie outfit Broadcast–to whose late singer, Trish Keenan, the film is dedicated–is a particular standout) combining with the visuals to create a thick, eerie atmosphere. If you like spooky organs and harsh analog synthesizer noises, this is the movie for you. The “behind-the-scenes” aspect of the story is also extremely strong and credible, being strengthened with realistic details (take it from me and Drudgie, two guys who know a few things about sound recording and mixing).
Writer/director Peter Strickland makes an interesting stylistic choice here. The Equestrian Vortex is almost entirely withheld from the viewer, with only the title sequence and a couple of scenes being shown to the audience. Despite this, I found it to be one of the most vivid depictions of a film-within-a-film I’ve ever experienced (from what is heard during the recording sessions and character discussions, I imagine it as being what Suspiria would have been like if Lucio Fulci had directed it).
As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the production, the story almost killed the entire experience for me. The film moves waaay too slowly in its first two thirds, which largely consists of Gilderoy reading letters from his mum and being British in the face of a barrage of uncouth Italian non-Britishness. More than once I found myself wondering if anything was ever going to actually happen in the film, or whether it was all going to be about Gilderoy trying to be reimbursed for his plane ticket and plunging knives into heads of lettuce.
When the madness finally does start to manifest, it’s more abstract and symbolic: very reminiscent of David Lynch in its application of nightmare logic. And that’s always been something I’ve had trouble getting into. First and foremost, I want to be told a story; I’ve never had much patience for “pure cinema.” I understand that’s very much a subjective thing, and I could forgive the film a lot if it was thought-provoking, or if I thought it might be thought-provoking in a way I just wasn’t getting–just as I did with Hour Of The Wolf. But the final half-hour strikes me as little more than a mindfuck for the sake of a mindfuck. And I simply didn’t engage with most of what was happening on an emotional level.
I’m trying very damn hard to cut Berberian Sound Studio some slack, because there’s a lot of good stuff to be had here, and there definitely is an audience out there who is going to get it and appreciate it. It’s not going to be a particularly wide audience (and it’s an audience that, I say with some sadness, doesn’t include me), but that’s the risk you take with art.
My rating: 5 of 10.
92 minutes. Directed by Peter Strickland. Starring Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohammed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna.