Film review – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

6 December 2012
Gilderoy (Toby Jones)

Gilderoy (Toby Jones)

As film production and exhibition rapidly embraces digital technologies, more and more contemporary films are paying homage to earlier modes of production when films were shot and screened on film. Hugo, The Artist, Holy Motors, Argo and Frankenweenie are some of the recent films that have in their own way acknowledged the power of cinema from different eras. Now Berberian Sound Studio pays tribute to analogue sound recording and giallo films; the wonderfully pulpy Italian crime thriller and horror films that were most prolific during the 1970s.  The second feature by British writer/director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio is named after the film’s setting: a fictional Italian post-production studio doing the post-synched audio recording for a particularly nasty 1976 giallo film titled The Equestrian Vortex. For reasons never fully explained, the studio hires Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild mannered sound engineer from England, to work on the elaborate sound mix. Used to working on pleasant documentaries about the English countryside and writing letters to his mother, Gilderoy struggles to cope with the aggressive behaviour of his Italian co-workers and the gruesome content of the film.

Strickland ensures that the audience never see any of The Equestrian Vortex, aside from its psychedelic title sequence. Instead the audience hear the scenes being described, see Gilderoy’s reaction to it and witness the sound effects being created. Berberian Sound Studio convincingly demonstrates how effective cinema can be even when the mechanics of how it is made are completely exposed. Like being enchanted by a puppet even when the puppeteer is on full display, the squelching sound of watermelons being smashed to convey trauma to the body and the ripping sound of radish stalks being pulled out to convey hair being torn from the head, are still gruesome. Along with various other classic sound effect techniques, the film also depicts human voice actors providing not only the dialogue, but also the haunting singing used for the soundtrack as well as the deranged vocal sounds of the supernatural characters. The entire illusion of how sound is created and manipulated in cinema is on complete display in Berberian Sound Studio and yet this somehow enhances its mystique.

As well as the magnificent sound design, Berberian Sound Studio is visually impressive with the claustrophobic and darkly lit sound studio set enhancing the menace that Gilderoy feels from The Equestrian Vortex and some of his co-workers. Graphic matches and match-on-action edits between the scenes in the studio and the scenes in Gilderoy’s small room, bring together the various settings to create a sense of never-ending work, where The Equestrian Vortex relentlessly intrudes into Gilderoy’s psyche. As the physical spaces in Berberian Sound Studio collapse into each other through the editing and production design, Gilderoy loses the ability to discern between the objective world, the world of The Equestrian Vortex and his own unconscious. This blurring of the boundaries ultimately makes Berberian Sound Studio a dark psychological thriller, from the perspective of a highly unreliable and unstable protagonist.

As the frequently sadistic content of The Equestrian Vortex begins to permeate into Gilderoy’s mind, the dynamics of the studio personnel are seen to reflect the content of the film they are working on. The female actors hired to record the voices of the various victims are bullied by the bad-tempered Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who demands they scream more authentically and belittles them for having only been hired because the director Santini (Antonio Mancino) slept with them. As the tortures inflicted upon the characters in the film-within-the-film intensify, Francesco’s behaviour also gets worse as do his strategies for getting the women to scream the way he would like them to. Gilderoy also suffers substantially, having to endure Francesco’s condescension and criticism as well as Santini’s passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness about the artistic merit of the film, which Santini refuses to acknowledge as a horror. The violence staged on film begins to reflect the emotional abuse behind the scenes.

Berberian Sound Studio is a masterfully made film that will please audio experts, cinephiles and horror fans, especially fans of films from the era made by directors such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. The film lovingly presents the analogue sound recording and mixing process in just the right level of detail to entrance enthusiasts without being overly technical. The exhilarating sense of dread that Strickland coaxes from the audience through sound alone is very impressive as are the moments when the film demonstrates how much sound can give meaning to the visuals: when Gilderoy is splashed with tomato soup it is impossible to think of anything other than blood, shots of the decaying vegetables used for sound effects disturbingly evoke the frailty of the human body. The film becomes increasingly non-lineal and subjective as the boundaries between the truth and fiction collapse for Gilderoy. However, audiences happy to surrender to the craft on display will have no problem indulging in Berberian Sound Studio’s aural and visual pleasures. And if there was any doubt about the best way to appreciate such a film – or any film for that matter – a red sign frequently flashes in the darkness with a very clear and simple instruction to the viewer: SILENZIO.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

An interview with Luca Guadagnino, the director of I Am Love

27 June 2010
I Am Love writer/director Luca Guadagnino

I Am Love writer/director Luca Guadagnino

Set in Milan at the start of the last decade I Am Love is about Emma, played by Tilda Swinton, the mother of the extremely wealthy family who made their fortune in the textile business. Evoking both the stylish Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the rich mise-en-scene and cinematography of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, I Am Love is a feast for the senses.

When I spoke with Luca Guadagnino we talked about collaborating with Tilda Swinton, the inspiration for I Am Love‘s cinematography and his love of Jonathan Demme’s films, especially Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married.

This interview was recorded on Friday 11 June 2010 and then played on The Casting Couch on Saturday 26 June 2010.

Download link (interview running time = 10:49)

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Film review – I Am Love (2009)

24 June 2010
I Am Love: Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton)

Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton)

Set in Milan at the beginning of the 2000s, I Am Love begins with a series of stunningly beautiful shots of the Italian city in winter, combined with dramatic music and gorgeously hand drawn opening title graphics that recall the great European films of the 1950s. We are introduced to various members of the Recchi family who are gathering to celebrate their grandfather’s birthday, the man whose textile business has brought the family so much wealth. One of the family members gathered at this occasion is Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), the Russian-born matriarch of the family whose son and husband are named as the joint successors of her father-in-law’s business. While initially seeming like it could develop into a Shakespearian drama of father versus son over control of the business, I Am Love instead focuses on Emma to develop into a film about emotional repression and what it takes to break free and experience passion despite its consequences.

The defining quality that makes I Am Love such captivating cinema is its extraordinary beauty. Writer/director Luca Guadagnino has made a visually transfixing film where the lyrical editing and gorgeous cinematography present the already visually arresting settings and decor in a way that is completely breathtaking. In particular, French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s tendency to slightly over-expose all his shots to give everything in the frame a radiant glow. The result is a mesmerising atmosphere that is made even more dreamlike when combined with the discordant score by minimalist composer John Adams.

Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) and Edoardo Recchi Jr. (Flavio Parenti)

Not completely dissimilar to the way Quentin Tarantino mines exploitation and B-grade cinema to inspire and reference his films, Guadagnino has appropriated and paid homage to many of the great art house directors as well as some key Hollywood directors. Guadagnino is extremely well versed in cinema history and academia so you could spend hours debating the points in which I Am Love evokes the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. However, it really is the cinema of Luchino Visconti that is most recognisable as one of Guadagnino’s influences, especially The Leopard. However, while The Leopard’s themes of an upper class and older generation stepping aside to make way for the new have some thematic similarities to a number of the sub-plots in I Am Love, it is the rich visual detail in both films where the main distinction lies.

I Am Love is an astonishing film that deserves to be savoured although it struggles to maintain the initial level of interest after a particular plot development upsets its previously serene mood. Also, while the intense visuals are undeniably impressive, they don’t consistently connect to the story emotionally. Tilda Swinton delivers a bold and powerful performance as Emma although it would have been nice to see more of some of the other characters more fleshed out, in particular her two children who are breaking free of their family’s restraints in their own ways.  Like Luke Ford’s A Single Man, I Am Love is somewhat a case of style over substance but at least that style is rich enough for it not to matter.

Listen to Thomas Caldwell’s interview with writer/director Luca Guadagnino.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Quiet Chaos (2008)

22 May 2009
Pietro Paladini (Nanni Moretti) and Claudia Paladini (Blu Yoshimi)

Pietro Paladini (Nanni Moretti) and Claudia Paladini (Blu Yoshimi)

This Italian hit from 2008 is a difficult film to describe. Calling it an art-house feel-good film is probably the best way to categorise it but such a label really doesn’t do justice to this gently moving and understated film about moving on after tragedy, family and simply being human. Quiet Chaos (Caos calmo) is the perfect title as it embodies the idea of its lead character Pietro Paladini being the calm centre of the storm amid the chaos that is modern life. The film opens with a monumental incident of irony where Pietro’s visit to the beach with his brother is prolonged when they find themselves the only people who are willing and able to save a pair of drowning women. This unthanked for act of unintentional heroism means that Pietro does not get home in time to be with his wife who suddenly dies after collapsing. However instead of raging at the cruelty of his fate, Pietro goes into a strange state of shock, adopting a sad and wise serenity. Becoming more attached to his young daughter than ever Pietro begins to spend his days in the park opposite her primary school waiting for her to finish her school day. Over a number of weeks various neighbouring strangers and worried work colleagues begin to regularly visit Pietro in the park and they increasingly rely on him for advice, sympathy and understanding.

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Film review – Gomorrah (2008)

13 May 2009

still_6638 low resOrganised crime has long been a favourite topic in cinema with the gangster film being a favourite Hollywood genre ever since the 1930s. Gangster films reflected a dark, seductive and hedonistic side of capitalism where the glamour of the gangster lifestyle is only superficially undermined by the obligatory moral ending where the gangsters are either brought to justice or meet a violent demise. Italian gangsters have held the most fascination with The Godfather films, Goodfellas and the television series The Sopranos becoming dominant texts in contemporary popular culture. The depiction of the gangster lifestyle has become progressively less romantic across these texts as they increasingly examine the brutal reality of the criminal lifestyle and mentality. However, nothing has come close to the blunt depiction of Italian organised crime that is presented in the Italian film Gomorrah, which depicts the operations of the Camorra. The Camorra clans populate the Italian provinces of Naples and Caserta but their operations in both illegal and legal businesses, with an estimated yearly turnover of 150 billion euros, are global. They have been responsible for more than 4000 deaths in the last thirty years, which is more than any other criminal organisation or terrorist group.

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Notes on film: The Leopard

13 October 2008

“Something had to change for everything to stay as it was.”

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is a historical epic of breathtaking scope and beauty. It is an acclaimed adaptation of the 1958 novel, by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the unification of Italy in the late 19th century. This 1963 film adaptation is a highpoint in the later part of an illustrious career of the Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, demonstrating his classical sense of aestheticism and modern approach to storytelling. Watching The Leopard is an absolute feast for the senses as Visconti’s camera captures all the detail and beauty in the Sicilian landscape and buildings that the film takes place in.

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Film review – The Last Kiss (2001)

14 May 2002

Writer/director Gabriele Muccino’s The Last Kiss (L’Ultimo bacio) was one of the biggest box-office hits and most acclaimed films in Italy last year. The comedy-drama tells the stories of several relationships that are in various stages of crisis, including a middle-aged woman who has finally decided to leave her romantically neglectful husband, and their recently pregnant daughter whose insecure boyfriend is contemplating an affair with an eighteen-year old school girl.

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