Self-awareness is a quality rarely on display at the hulking behemoths that most film festival are, and so it is refreshing at the onset of the New York Film Festival—which has a comparatively small main slate, though one that over the last couple years has confusedly sprawled out in different directions with micro-sidebars—to discover a movie here that is acutely, intelligently and stylishly conscious.
A sound mixer (Toby Jones) shows up in a studio in Italy in the 1970s, hired to do the mix for a time-spanning giallo-like genre film titled The Equestrian Vortex. The room, and the title of the film about the mixer's experience there, is “Berberian Sound Studio”—an all-encompassing, yet limited space: the movie and the mixer never leave the studio. The vision of the film is the studio—the only thing director/writer Peter Strickland shows beyond it is the mixer's Italian flat, but that space bleeds such with the studio the two seem inseparable. Later, it is revealed the kind of work the mixer did before he started this job and we are momentarily taken out of the studio; but appropriately enough, the place we are taken is not a place but a film itself. Such limited visualization—this is all to say Berberian Sound Studio is about sound, which may seem somewhat obvious considering the hero is a sound designer, but in Strickland's movie, by only showing the process of the mixer's work, of him thinking about his work, by never showing us The Equestrian Vortex, by never expanding the mise en scène beyond the two spaces the mixer moves between, by thereby never replacing but certainly dominating the visual exposition of the film with the aural, we discover two things: the alienation of labor, and the unimagined moral quandaries of labor.
I don't mean this to sound theoretical; the film is about a nebbish Englishman's discomfited experience working abroad, working with strangers, and above all working on the “kind of film” he hasn't in the past: that is, terribly, terribly violent. The idea of an artist or person being lost and adrift on a film production is hardly new, but it is Berberian's limitations which so specially define it: we only see post-production, and we only experience it from the side of a non-glamorous illusionist. We never see the rushes he's watching, the images of torture, horror and bloodshed to which he mixing a soundtrack including foley effects of mutilation and death, hushed vocal dub tracks, cooing music. We see the mixer's reactions, we see his equipment, we see it recording, we see the artists behind the sounds, and, of course, we hear all.
From its expansive sound and limited vision, the film forms an oneiric cocoon around the mixer and his work. His work is the film and no scene in the film is not enmeshed with his work: scenes at the flat are him listening to home recordings or the giallo studiowork—and the two merging into dream visions—and even scenes in the studio hallway are all about him claiming expense receipts from his flight over. There is only really character and not much plot, as the narrative starts disoriented and only maintains this sense for 90 minutes; in a way, watching the film is like watching someone on a shift, seeing the same task carried through continuously, repeated with minor variations, with no grand narrative other than the time it's suppose to start and supposed to stop.
This is not to discount what Strickland shows. One might think a project like this nostalgic, a throwback to a genre and an era of production that no longer exists. Since part of the film's atmosphere and energy derives from how the subject matter of The Equestrian Vortex bleeds into the workspace, consciousness, dreams and psyche of the people working on it, one might expect Berberian to become the kind of the giallo-style thriller that is at its unseen center, but such expectations at smartly thwarted. Similarly, a film about such period specific and highly technical film production might be a “paean” or “lament” to a dying form of analog cinematic magic making; yet Berberian steps around this again, being too general in its lengthy montages of reels starting and stopping, buttons being pushed, sliders tweaked, to become fetishistic, and too specific to be accused of indifference. If anything, the film portrays the sound design of a film as nearly an alien practice full of fascinating but cryptically technical/complicated machinery and elaborate but unexplained effects. The work is indeed specialized, requires expertise and skill, as does the dubbing done in the studio (a professional woman is replaced by an amateur and the production falters) and the foley work (hilariously done by “Massimo and Massimo,” a duo tasked with recreating stabbed torsos, mashed skulls and drowned nuns with cabbage, melons and cups of water).
Yet it is always moral work, which is at the core of Berberian Sound Studio. The mixer objects to the violence he is augmenting, turning into illusion, despite the fact the visionary director, who balks at his film being casually called a “horror movie” by the mixer, claims to be exposing truths of history and human existence in his narrative of witches resurrected today after being interrogated and then tortured to death in the past. The mixer's recoil has little to do with squeamishness of the images but in his task of fully completing the illusion of their truthfulness through his soundwork. Meanwhile, in the studio itself, an actress is predictably molested by the director, and we see a simultaneous morality in the cinema on play in this simple sound studio, a morality of creating the moving, speaking image, and of working behind the scenes to create that cinema.
Again, this may sound a bit dry, but the texture of the film is almost wholly devoted to the deeply pleasurable visual-aural texture of the dreamlike segues between the mixer's work, his mindstate, the creation of his mix, and his mixed elements. All blend together to nearly obliterate forward momentum, but instead, as in The Equestrian Vortex's nun's voiceovers appealing to God, asks where morality lays in the cinema. Is it on screen? Is it in the studio? Can the two spaces become one, figuratively, literally, morally? When Strickland eventually reveals the kind of work the mixer did before coming to this project, shown in a feverish sequence that personifies the narrative's blending between the mixer's mindstate and the film's exposition of material, practice and results, we can finally really see what's at stake. It's a kind of inverse production, one that takes no risks and is couched in physical, psychic and moral safety, whereas Vortex is the opposite end of the spectrum. Stuck in-between is our mixer, tasked to bring all elements into perfect arrangement, to seal the gaps, smooth the artifice and imperfections, and above all heighten the truth of what we are seeing and hearing. The results of which, as in the soundtrack of Berberian Sound Studio itself, will inevitably be unnoticably immaculate, part of a fluid, illusionist texture—and the question posed and remains: What is at stake both in this creation and in the act of its creation?