Bound to be one of the more divisive films of Fantastic Fest, Berberian Sound Film takes the kernel of a terrific idea and tries to expand it into a feature. That it almost makes it to finish speaks well of a premise ripe for exploration. It's unfortunate that the missteps towards the end cause it to stumble, and left the taste of mild disappointment.
An Italian film production recruits Gilderoy (Toby Jones) to oversee the sound mix for their upcoming horror film. Gilderoy embodies the prim and proper uptight British mannerism and soon realizes he has no idea what he signed on for with regards to both the Argento inspired extreme content of the film and the unprofessional, borderline criminal crew responsible for putting it together. As each day passes on the set the unfolding events on screen begin to take their toll and Gilderoy begins to lose his professionalism while starting to unravel. He starts to see a conspiracy forming with every dodged inquiry regarding missed expense reimbursement and a sinister plot behind the eyes of every sidelong glance. The language barrier and cultural divide serve to keep him on edge and wary of the crew, especially the brusque executive producer (Cosimo Fusco)
Exploring the toll prolonged exposure violent images take on someone unfamiliar or adverse to the genre is ripe for exploration. Toss in the fact that Jones' character works the set, and thus gets to see “how the sausage gets made” yet still can't separate fiction and reality makes Berberian all the more fascinating. The entirety of the film confines itself within the engineering booth, the sound stage and Gilderoy's attached apartment. That Jones never interacts with anyone outside the cramped walls give the impression of the setting bearing down on him all the more. The fact is there's no driving plot aside from the crew needing to complete the film under time and budget. Despite Gilderoy's gnawing suspicion that life has begun to imitate art, there's no grand conspiracy against him. Gilderoy simply lacks the stomach to tolerate the film's unseemly material and the backbone to stand up to his abusive employers.
Strickland employs the trappings of Giallo within the recording studio in order to mirror the film within the film. Berberian never shows a single frame of movie Gilderoy works on but provides plenty of aural cues, sound track snippets and narration describing the ludicrous set up of each scene to paint an image of an over-the-top mess commonly found in Italian horror. Strickland also shows off glimpses of Gilderoy at work which provides a fascinating look behind the curtain of movie making. Jone's engineer is a master at manipulating and amplifying mundane household activities and objects twisted into the shape of piercing audio. Ultimately Berberian Sound Studio is a film tailored to those who love digging in to the details of movie making rather than those who just want an entertaining story.
Unfortunately Berberian goes off the rails at a specific moment in the last twenty minutes. Perhaps feeling the need to have something happen Strickland pushes in an unneeded and confusing direction. The last section of the film takes on the trappings of a confusing dream where objects and characters appear recognizable yet skirt outside the grasp of the the established reality. Events occur on screen that make no sense when paired with the following scene. It's a shift of only a few degrees, but its ambiguity and ends the film on an unclear, sour note.