Friday Night Flix: Berberian Sound Studio

bss2Welcome to Friday Night Flix, where there’s never a need to leave the couch or put on pants. Each week I’ll recommend an under-the-radar movie currently available on one or more of the major streaming platforms. They won’t all be classics, but every selection is guaranteed to be 100% watchable or your money back.

I utterly failed to select a holiday themed movie for this, the last FNF before X-mas. For that I am sorry. If you haven’t seen it, I  absolutely recommend Rare Exports, which is totally weird and very much awesome. Say hi to Vuppe for me.

But enough about what I didn’t get you for Christmas. Let’s focus on what I did get you: Berberian Sound Studio (Netflix). It  sounds a little Christmasy, doesn’t it? Well it’s the thought that counts, you bastards.

bss1Berberian Sound Studio feels a little like a David Lynch movie in that, by design, you spend a good deal of time not having the slightest fucking clue what’s going on. It starts off pretty grounded in reality with the introduction of Toby Jones’ character, a British sound mixer for a horror movie directed by a Dario Argento type auteur. (“This is not a horror movie. It’s a Santini movie.” That has to be a direct Argento quote.) The plot of the movie-within-the-movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Argento’s Suspiria, which many argue is his best movie ever but is in fact an unwatchable nightmare. The movie footage everyone is working on is never actually shown, so we can’t tell if the fictional director, like Argenot, insists on casting his daughter in the lead role and having her get naked all the time. Instead we see it through the eyes of the people in the studio who are forced to watch reels of footage over and over again, which is a choice not without merit.

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As production continues, it becomes clear that something non-literal is taking place, for example when out of nowhere all the dialogue suddenly switches from English to dubbed Italian with subtitles. There are hints here and there about what it all Means but frankly that gets boring in a hurry. I can’t stand being given a puzzle for which there is no satisfying solution. Is the sound guy being absorbed by the movie? Are the acts of brutality he’s watching driving him insane and this is all happening in his head? Did he die on the flight over and this is all some Jacob’s Ladder thing? It’s seriously annoying that you’re not meant to understand what exactly is happening. Thankfully the vagary doesn’t make the movie any less stylish or intriguing, even if it never fully cashes in on the mystery it works so hard to build. bss3

Added bonus: Perhaps the coolest part of the movie is the Foley work done by the main character and his local assistants, who both happen to be named Massimo. It’s merely background for…whatever…but it’s a fascinating peek into movie making history. Berberian Sound Studio probably takes place some time in the 70s (though the 60s or 80s would not be impossible) so it prominently features huge silver Nagra recorders with more switches than a space shuttle. Better still, you get behind-the-curtain looks at how sound effects are produced. We all know or can guess that stabbing and slashing sound effects are the result of vegetables being brutally murdered. But did you know that rubbing an old lightbulb on wire makes an eerily musical ray gun/flying saucer effect? Neat.

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