British director Peter Strickland made quite a splash in the festival and arthouse circuit with his striking debut Katalin Varga. His follow-up to that dark tale of revenge among Carpathian rural traditions is an even more accomplished work stylistically, an extension of his apparently effortless formalist control of mood and tone, working within tightly codified genre structures yet openly moving beyond and outside them. Like the previous film, Berberian Sound Studio is a slight narrative bulked up and given heft through its impeccably controlled handling: in the 1970s, British sound recordist Gilderoy (the excellent Toby Jones, playing the right side of disorientation and frustration) arrives in Italy to do the sound mix for a cheap horror movie.

     It soon becomes clear that Gilderoy is well out of his depth - more used to the serenity of the countryside and to the aural soundscapes of nature documentaries, the quiet, organised Englishman feels ill at ease among the voluble, rickety Italian production, truly a stranger in a strange land. And the violent scenes he is post-producing for self-aggrandizing director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) and frustrated producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco) start taking their toll. Berberian Sound Studio becomes the tale of Gilderoy's descent into a sort of living nightmare, as he begins to lose his grasp on reality and enters a twilight world where time bends and shifts to the rhythms of the scenes he is dubbing and mixing over and over again.

     It isn't as plot-driven as Katalin Varga was, but like its predecessor it works more as a subtle but definite accumulation of touches, a disquieting mood symphony that Mr. Strickland layers as carefully as Gilderoy his work, creating a seemingly never-ending Möbius strip. It's hardly a traditional horror movie, as there is no horror shown on screen. It works within the confines of the classic Italian horror and giallo movies of the 1960s and 1970s as made famous by directors such as Mario Bava or Dario Argento; DP Nic Knowland doesn't shy from lighting it starkly, creating a diffuse, disturbing mood on production designer Jennifer Kernke's detailed sound studio set. But it's a sort of meta-giallo, where nothing is really ever seen, confirming that the best horror films are those where everything is suggested and remains in one's mind. Or, rather, in Mr. Strickland's and sound designer Joakim Sundström's fully realised, immersive sound world, for this is a film driven not by what's seen but by what's heard (special mention should also go to the appropriately moody score from alternative rock group Broadcast).

     Berberian Sound Studio is a staggering technical achievement, a work that sustains its mood through purely sensory means for as long as it can (and, granted, it doesn't manage it all the way). If Katalin Varga didn't convince you here was a director worth looking out for, then Berberian Sound Studio should set you straight about that.

Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed
Director and writer: Peter Strickland
Cinematography: Nic Knowland  (colour)
Music: Broadcast
Designer: Jennifer Kernke
Costumes: Julian Day
Editor: Chris Dickens
Sound: Joakim Sundström
Producers: Keith Griffiths, Mary Burke (Illuminations Films and Warp X for Filmfour and The UK Film Council in association with Screen Yorkshire and Geißendörfer Film und Fernsehproduktion)
United Kingdom/Germany, 2011, 92 minutes

Screened: Roxie Film Theater, San Francisco, June 25th 2012


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