Sensory overload in Berberian Sound Studio
How to make a film festival laugh: make specific plans and get your hopes up for movies that neither you nor anybody else has seen. Schedules get shuffled around, word of mouth is exaggerated or simply misleading, and Q&As run longer than they're meant to. Even so, it's difficult not to put an inordinate amount of eggs into a fairly small basket and, this year at Locarno, the first of these for me was Berberian Sound Studio. Directed by Peter Strickland, this throwback to '70s giallo films stars ubiquitous character actor Toby Jones in a rare lead role as a sound engineer named Gilderoy who gets hired to work on, well, a '70s giallo film. He's immediately met with preemptive distrust and hostility from several of his colleagues upon arriving at the eponymous studio, with things gradually unspooling from there.
Ever the observer, rarely a participant, Gilderoy is laconic and passive to the point of almost willful subservience. As Strickland reinforces early and often, what few words the man offers are both a defense mechanism and symptoms of a larger problem. “The less said the better,” the Fulci/Argento composite helming The Equestrian Vortex (quite possibly the best title for a film-within-a-film ever) says, and it's true: speaking most often leads to miscommunication and confusion here. So dark and boxed-in is the unnamed studio where nearly every scene takes place that we feel as confined as he is—we never know what time it is or whether the proceedings take place under the sun or moon.
Aside from Jones, the other principal character is sound. Whether it be in the form of film stock whirring through a projector, fingers punching down on a typewriter, or an actress letting out a bloodcurdling scream in a recording booth, the film is by turns bassy and high-pitched but rarely anything less than loud. Berberian Sound Studio is as much a love letter to analogue as it is a deconstruction/parody of giallo, with foley artists smashing watermelons to approximate the sound of a body hitting the ground after falling from a window taking up nearly as much screentime as conventional plot development. A mood piece with an abundance of style – what with its flashing lights and frequent close-ups, this is as much a visual experience as it is an aural one – whose primary non-Italian reference points are Peeping Tom and Blow Out, the film is evocative for each of its 89 minutes. And yet, for how involving it is in the moment, it's also a movie whose total immediacy at times feels like a tradeoff for a lack of resonance—it's an expertly crafted exercise in style, yes, but not always much beyond that.
Sun-kissed calm is deceptive in Padroni di Casa.
On the other side of the expectation-management coin is Edoardo Gabbriellini's Padroni di Casa, which first aroused attention via a wonderfully enticing poster that first went up around Locarno less than 24 hours before the film first screened. In it, two middle-aged brothers – one of them impulsive but well-meaning, the other quiet and reserved – are hired to restore the country home of an aging pop star on the eve of his first concert in years. Though simple and unassuming, this setup is also something of a lark: Padroni (The Homeowners, also translated as The Landlords) doesn't come out and announce itself as any one thing for quite some time; it begins with a brief prologue concerning unlawful wolf-hunting and the coverup thereof and quickly dovetails into the brothers' more initially placid story in a way that lets us know the two narrative threads are far from parallel without revealing which is more important. By withholding so much pertinent information for as long as possible and incrementally revealing it only when a given scene finally calls for it, Gabbriellini lends an understated foreboding to the proceedings which only increases throughout. The tension is so deftly counterbalanced by humor and charm, however, that it leaves us questioning not only what might happen next but also what sort of film it is we're watching—thriller, comedy, or something else altogether. (The linked nature of these two competing impulses, not to mention some fairly major plot developments, at times makes it seem as though Gabbriellini and his co-writers may have re-watched The Rules of the Game prior to penning the script.)
Cinematographer Daria D'Antonio has a yen for strikingly off-kilter compositions and natural light, with the quiet ambiance of the nature reserve on which the film is set reminding us of the story's sunnier elements in a way that's almost deceptive. Still, though, it wouldn't be right to say that there is an excess of hidden agendas in play: nearly every character wears his or her intentions on his or her sleeve; it's merely a question of if – and when – their plans will come to pass. Finding out how and why some do and others don't isn't every bit as rewarding as simply absorbing the early goings on, but the slippery slope that leads from one to the other has a gripping air of inevitability to it.
Michael Nordine lives in Los Angeles and has also written for Filmmaker Magazine, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice.
More dispatches from the Critics Academy participants will be published on FilmLinc.com through the end of the Locarno Film Festival on August 11. Keep watching for their bylines in the coming days!