I recently saw three movies, Berberian Sound Studio, Our Children and Barbara, that all had the same issue: they all started out very compellingly (or had a strong first act as we say in screenwriting patois), but the closer they got to the end, the more they spiraled out of control or simply stopped working.
Berberian Sound Studio is a giallo type film about the making of a giallo type film. It revolves around Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, hired by an Italian producer of questionable taste and morals, to help finish the post production of his latest opus. Gilderoy is played by Toby Jones and he’s excellent here, playing his victim role as if he were sweating timidity. His character knows something’s wrong, but is too much of a milquetoast to think the problem lies anywhere but within himself. In the end, the sheer will of his performance holds the movie together far longer than the writer/director Peter Strickland manages to.
Strickland, on his part, starts out on solid ground when the unsteady Gilderoy arrives at the studio to be met by people who switch from good cop to bad cop on a schizophrenic’s notice. There’s something off here and Strickland is expert at creating a creepy and unpleasant atmosphere where everything makes sense while making no sense whatsoever. He sets up Gilderoy as a stranger in a strange land and exploits the hell out of it. And it’s not long before all the ingredients are there for something really horrifying to happen. But then…almost nothing happens as the movie seems to stop…going…anywhere.
The most interesting aspect of the film is actually that movie within the movie, some monstrosity about witches and witchcraft reminiscent of Maria Bava, but which the producer waxes philosophically about and considers a masterpiece on the level of Citizen Kane. But ironically, what makes this part of the story work so well is that this movie is never shown. We’re given a great title sequence worthy of Saul Bass, but after that, everything we know about the film is derived by short summaries of scenes here and there; some dialog provided by the actors dubbing the lines; and the ridiculously sickening sounds of women on screen being mercilessly tortured and killed. It’s both revolting and extremely funny.
There’s also something somewhat mesmerizing about the way that sounds are produced via methods that have no bearing on their real life counterpart. Knives thrust into cantaloupes are people being stabbed Psycho like; a blender is a chainsaw; stems pulled from onions is hair being pulled out; a watermelon being destroyed with the grace of a Gallagher routine are bodies being beaten to pulp (the remains are then eaten afterwards by some of the characters while other bits of food are thrown stew like into a cauldron). Perhaps most delightful, though, are the two foley artists donning women’s high heels for footsteps and Gilderoy’s boss upset because an actress not only can’t scream convincingly, she also can’t scream in Italian.
But this is also where the problems begin. After awhile, that’s all the movie is, one dubbing session after another, until the whole film starts becoming redundantly…redundant, as if it were a sound engineer who had written the screenplay, thinking that nothing could possibly ever be anywhere near as interesting as what he does for a living. Every once in awhile, every long once in awhile, every very long once in awhile, something happens, kinda, sorta. At one point, an actress suggests that Gilderoy think about why, of all people, he was hired for the job. And if Gilderoy had, then the plot might have gone somewhere. Instead, Gilderoy’s character becomes more and more timid until he loses all interest and empathy.
One person described the movie as a David Lynch like ride. And he had a point. In the last third of the film, the movie just spirals out of control as it does in Lynch’s Inland Empire, until nothing makes sense, but in such a way that, as with Inland Empire, one can’t tell if the filmmaker did it on purpose or just didn’t know what to do.