Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Blood on the Catwalk in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon
France, Denmark, USA, 2016/ Cert. 18/ 118 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks.

When Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror, The Neon Demon, was screened at Cannes earlier this year, it simultaneously provoked booing and applause from the gathered press. Refn’s films have an interesting habit of dividing the critics: his 2013 thriller Only God Forgives received a similar reaction when it was entered for the Palme d’Or and, as Refn himself has pointed out, Drive (2011), his most acclaimed and accessible film to date, received mixed reviews on its release. In the case of The Neon Demon, such diversity of opinion is hardly surprising as it is an intentionally provocative film, however, its exploitational shocks ought not to fool us into thinking the film is not worthy of attention. Its relentlessly lurid blood and gore and transgressive sexual content make The Neon Demon a stylish and perverse work of cinematic art.

 The film opens with wannabe model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), wearing a bright blue PVC dress and draped over a chaise longue, with what seems to be blood from a neck wound oozing down her chest and arms. We discover that the blood is fake and that this is merely a photo shoot, an opportunity to build Jesse’s portfolio to assist her to gain a foothold in the fashion industry. The aspiring photographer is a friend, Dean (Karl Glusman), who tentatively starts a relationship with Jesse only to be cruelly rejected later in the film. Dean represents the film’s only portrayal of human decency; a moral compass in a society dominated by callousness, self-promotion and narcissism.

The innocent, virginal Jesse lodges in a seedy, run-down Los Angeles motel which is managed by Hank, sleazily played by Keanu Reeves. We begin to ask questions about Hank’s dubious character when he asks if Dean might be interested in ‘some real Lolita shit’, and have sex with a thirteen-year-old runaway girl who is staying at the motel. Hank also forces Jesse to pay for damages to her room after it is wrecked by a large wild cat that has escaped from the zoo, the first scene to suggest a surreal juxtaposition between twisted fantasy and reality which will recur throughout the film. Even more disturbing is a dream-sequence where Hank sneaks into Jesse’s room whilst she is asleep and forces her to swallow a large knife as if performing fellatio. Later someone- possibly Hank- attempts to break in to Jesse’s room but, thwarted in his attempt, goes into the thirteen-year-old-girl’s room next door instead to attack and rape her. The assault occurs off-screen, heard by a distressed Jesse through the walls of the motel. The motel and its manager therefore represent the predatory underbelly of L.A. which is seen to be not to dissimilar in nature to the fashion industry itself. 

Jesse finds work at a top modelling agency and when she informs the owner, Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks), that she is sixteen she is told to lie and say she is nineteen. (In an interesting case of mimesis, Fanning was also only sixteen years of age when The Neon Demon was filmed in 2015). Hoffman then sends Jesse off to an intimidating test shoot with the renowned photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), who calls for a closed shoot and orders her to undress. Before she strips, Jesse is framed in the centre of the shot with a completely white background to emphasise her virginity and inexperience and as she takes off her clothes the camera remains fixed upon her face in close-up, capturing her vulnerability. Jack then turns of the lights and the screen is engulfed in almost complete darkness until the photographer smears gold paint over Jesse’s body. Despite the menacing nature of this sequence, the shoot proves to be a success and as Jesse’s career takes off she becomes increasingly confident and self-obsessed, transformed from the sweet naïf seen at the film’s outset struggling to come to terms with the industry’s immorality into a beautiful egotist who, it seems, is more than capable of matching her colleagues, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi’s (Bella Heathcote) contemptuous ambition.

Jesse is drawn into the L.A. fashion social scene by her make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who initially suggests she wants to protect her from the more corrupt aspects of the business. It is Ruby who introduces Jesse to Sarah and Gigi at a party which turns into a Japanese bondage show. The two models are both fascinated and jealous by Jesse’s youth and beauty as Sarah is regarded as being too old for modelling and Gigi represents a fake beauty owing to the amount of surgery she has had done to fulfil the needs of the industry. Both models appear threatened by Jesse’s natural good looks and attempt to demean her, whereas when Ruby makes up Jesse there is suggestion that she is sexually attracted to the model and this is confirmed later when Ruby tries to initiate sex with her. This forceful and clumsy attempt at seduction leads into The Neon Demon’s most notorious scene. Ruby moonlights as a make-up specialist at a morgue and when she is treating the corpse of an attractive female she becomes sexually aroused, climbing on top of the dead body to have sex with the corpse whilst a cross-cut of Ruby’s thought processes show us she is fantasising about Jesse as she masturbates.

In addition to lesbian necrophilia, as The Neon Demon progresses Refn steadily racks up the nudity and gore, referencing familiar horror tropes of vampirism, cannibalism and necromancy along the way to transform the film into a deeper, unsettling psychological study- a kind of The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) with graphic sex and violence. If The Neon Demon can be read as an exposé of the fashion industry, then it is one which has been imbued with the symbolism of Luis Buñuel and suffused with Giallo imagery. There is one moment in the film when Jesse is pursued around an L.A. mansion and, in fear for her life, she takes a large knife to defend herself. In this sequence, Refn pays homage to Dario Argento as the rooms and corridors are vividly lit in red and appear as though they could have been lifted straight from Argento’s Suspiria (1977). The film is strikingly shot throughout, utilising saturated colour with vibrant blues and reds prominent and the cinematographer Natasha Braier and lighting, set and costume designers have done a tremendous job in creating such a stylish and memorable look for the film.

The Neon Demon also clearly references Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) in its symbolism. During their short-lived romance, Jesse says to Dean how as a child she would climb onto the roof of her parents’ house to stare at the moon which she imagined to be a giant eye and the moon and eye are symbolic images conjured up regularly in the film. At one point, Ruby is seen performing some sort of occult ritual, laying naked under the full moon with blood gushing from between her legs. The scenes of flowing blood are reminiscent of The Shining (1980) and there is a further nod to Kubrick’s film when Jesse is informed that the shade of lipstick she is wearing is named Redrum. In addition to The Shining, there also features a hallucinatory sequence which suggests that Jesse may be losing her grip on reality with human hands growing from the walls of the room, echoing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). The fact that The Neon Demon’s cinematic influences are clearly on display does not detract from the film’s originality, however, as it follows the auterist patterns of Refn’s previous films in its emphasis on visual style and depiction of extreme subject matter. Whilst many may baulk at Refn’s slick, chic and sick take on the modelling world and the nature of beauty, its formal brilliance cannot be ignored.

As befitting for a horror film with its subject matter, The Neon Demon suggests that the fashion world is a zombie industry which is dangerously out of control, pointing to lengths that the models in the industry will go: either under the knife in an attempt to achieve physical perfection- like Gigi or, as hinted by the narrative arc of the film, practising witchcraft to achieve success. Jesse’s rapid rise to prominence on the catwalk is prompted by a top fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola in an uncredited role. With an inclination to philosophise, the designer declares ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’, promoting Jesse to close one of his shows. Jesse’s appearance on the catwalk marks the turning point in the narrative, confirming the aspiring model’s potential star quality and highlighting a transformation in her personality as she is seen narcissistically kissing her own reflection in a mirror. As Jesse stands on the catwalk she appears to have an out of body experience, standing in a trance-like state as she watches herself perform. Is this reality we are seeing or merely a projection of Jesse’s fantasies? Prominent on the catwalk is a strange, glowing triangular neon structure which is at first an electric blue and then changes to a vivid red. Framed centrally in the shot with the rest of the screen in darkness, is this portentous structure the titular Neon Demon? Or is it some kind of portal to another dimension of reality? The neon structure and the entire scene itself is rich in symbolic meaning, possessing a delirious, surreal quality which is complemented by the use of strobe lighting, the striking use of colour and Cliff Martinez’s minimal electronic soundtrack.

After Jesse’s strange encounter on the catwalk with the Neon Demon, events turn increasingly violent and the story becomes more ambiguous. The mixed reaction to The Neon Demon could be accountable to this ambiguity and the fact that the film is generically difficult to pin down. It may be considered too outré and for some tastes on the one hand whilst being too abstruse for some horror aficionados on the other. However, there is enough blood-soaked nubile flesh on display here to keep most discerning fans of exploitation cinema happy. The Neon Demon is arthouse exploitation, coming across like a particularly visceral and recherché Hammer horror on Viagra.

I couldn’t watch this film, with its thematic engagement with the objectification of feminine beauty, without thinking back to Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which combined psychoanalysis and feminism to introduce to cinema studies the theory of “the male gaze”. However, In The Neon Demon, and especially its grotesque, stomach-churning conclusion, Refn isn’t content to merely show us “the gaze”. Instead his film ingests it and vomits it back up. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Ben Wheatley Reaches for the Sky in High-Rise
High-Rise - Review
UK, 2016/ Cert 15/ 119 mins
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddlestone, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy.

Ben Wheatley made his debut in 2009 with the gritty documentary-style realism of Down Terrace, a gangster thriller shot for a mere £20,000 in the director’s hometown of Brighton. With High-Rise- an adaptation of the allegedly “unfilmable” J G Ballard novel- Wheatley has earned the right to considerably expand his budget. The film, featuring an A-list cast, still cost a relatively modest £6 million, but it does demonstrate Wheatley stepping up a league to comfortably prove his talents are not confined to low budget fare. Although High-Rise may have polarised critical opinion surely no one can seriously call into question its sheer audacity? The film, like the Brutalist high-rise apartment of its setting, aims for the firmament. However, it also shows its tenants and, by inference modernity itself, heading for a fall.
          High Rise’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, has wanted to bring Ballard’s novel to the screen since its publication. In the late 1970s he managed to get the director Nicholas Roeg on board but the film failed to materialise. Wheatley admits that he was unaware of the Roeg connection but he was acquainted with the fact that Thomas resurrected the idea in the 1990s, this time with Vincenzo Natali (Cypher, Splice) directing from a script by Richard Stanley. In the same way that David Cronenberg switched the setting of his filmed version of Ballard’s Crash (1996) from London to Toronto, Natali’s adaptation of High-Rise was set to relocate the apartment to an island in the Pacific. Again, the film never saw the light of day. But now at last, Thomas has seen his dream of Ballard’s dystopian nightmare transferred to the screen and the result is staggeringly brilliant. High-Rise is such a vertiginously joyous experience that I emerged from the theatre after viewing the film reeling from its bravura to such an extent that I suspected that my popcorn may have been laced with amphetamine.
High-Rise opens with its central character, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone), eating roasted Alsatian on his apartment balcony with the voice-over informing us that "For all its inconveniencies, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise." The remainder of the film’s narrative relates the characters’ atavistic degeneration, via one continuous flashback, beginning three months earlier at the time that Laing first moved into the tower block. Laing remains an enigma in the film and Hiddlestone succeeds in bringing all of his character’s contradictions to life. Laing is an innocent who seemingly gets drawn into the events against his better judgement. Taking the moral high ground, he steps in to offer protection when the violence threatens to get out control. Nevertheless, Laing remains a willing participant in the brutality. He is a self-confessed “quick learner” and his breakdown sees him increasingly neglect his work as he gives in to the high-rise’s decadent influence, drinking heavily whilst embarking upon two affairs with Charlotte Melville, lasciviously played by Sienna Miller, and the heavily pregnant Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss).
The apartment block resembles a city in the sky, an architectural concept that offers all the modern amenities that could be found within the urban environment. Residents can enjoy a megastore, gymnasium, swimming pools, spa, restaurant and a school. Unfortunately its high-speed elevators, refuse and electrical systems experience faults and it is the failure of these vital services, mere “breathing problems" according to the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), which provide the catalyst for a wanton descent into licentiousness, violence and murder.
Wild bacchanalian parties continue long into the night with drink and drugs on tap as the residents unleash their latent hedonistic impulses. Couples brazenly have sex in the corridors and at one of the ostentatious parties thrown by Royal which deteriorates into full-blown orgy, one woman shouts, “Now which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse.” As the trash begins to pile up in the corridors and entire floors of the building are left without electricity, supplies begin to run short in the supermarket, leading competing floors to form rival gangs to fight for goods and services. With the floors representing a de facto social hierarchy– the higher up the building the higher the status of the residents- this conflict becomes a pseudo class war, and social climbing by all means necessary becomes the natural order.

After being informed by Laing that a PET scan has indicated that he has a problem with his brain, Munroe (Augustus Prew), a trainee doctor at the hospital where Laing works, throws himself to his death from the building. Unconcerned by the tragic turn of events, the residents continue on their saturnalian trail of self-destruction. Later, the savage battle for hegemony begins when the filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) drowns the pet dog belonging to the faded actress, Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), in the swimming pool. When considering the drowning alongside the butchering and eating of the animals in the film, one may feel entitled to ask what have dogs done to offend Wheatley and his script-writing partner Amy Jump that their films relish in punishing the creatures to such a sadistic extent? Who can forget the mistreatment of Banjo, the Jack Russell, stolen from his owners and eventually abandoned in Sightseers?
There is a pervasive and insidious malevolence throughout much of Wheatley’s oeuvre. Talking to Mark Kermode about his second feature, the director says “Watching Kill List (2011), I do think, ‘Fuck, I was mean’. It’s a cruel film…. ‘Jesus it’s so angry’. But then I think High-Rise is too, in the end.”[i] Wheatley certainly has a point. There appears to be a singular trope of callousness throughout his films to date, whether it is the parenticidal bleakness of Down Terrace, the brutal genre-bending Kill List, the aforementioned Sightseers which comes across like it is the result of Sam Peckinpah spending a long weekend in a caravan with Mike Leigh, or the sinister, psychedelic, trippy-horror-freak-out of A Field in England (2013). Thematically High-Rise continues in this vein, exploring the dark and disturbing hinterlands of human psychology. T.S Eliot’s poem, ‘Whispers of Mortality’, describes the dramatist John Webster’s theatre as revealing “the skull beneath the skin” and there is certainly a touch of Jacobean tragedy in Wheatley’s cinema. In fact, High-Rise indirectly mirrors Eliot’s famous phrase when Laing performs an educational autopsy, slicing open a forehead and violently ripping back the flesh to show the skull and face to his students. One of the factors which make Wheatley’s films so memorable is that they contain many such striking images with narratives that viscerally peel away the repressed subconscious. But, despite the juxtaposition of viscosity and comedy, the recurring violence in his movies is rarely played for laughs. Although High-Rise’s perceptive satire upon modernity and ubiquitous nature of modern capitalism is riotously funny, there is a constant shift in tone between its dark humour and its ferocious, brutish violence. Although the film offers no rationale nor neat resolution to explain the characters’ regression towards anarchy, the scenes of rape and murder in High-Rise may be hard to stomach but they are never exploitative.
The dystopian element of both novel and film could be argued in a variety of ways. The isolation of the tenants and the encroachment of an increasingly virulent capitalism lead to an intensification of class-division and rampant individualism, impelling the characters to reject the accepted ethical code in favour of a sexual, violent, free-for-all which ultimately confirms the Thatcherite aphorism that “there is no such thing as society.” Similarly, references to Social Darwinism are constantly evoked. However, Ballard and Wheatley eschew didacticism in favour of creating a sense of alienation and apart from one reference to Margaret Thatcher at the film’s climax, the issue of causality is merely hinted at within the narrative.
The Brutalist architecture of the skyscraper itself could also be considered as contributing to the de-humanising effect. Ballard’s work has been remarkably prescient in relation to modern technological and industrial advances and most of his fiction deals with modernity rather than the usual spaceship and aliens stuff often associated with science fiction. Ballard was particularly interested in the interaction between technology, the environment and individual psychology and High-Rise highlights his fascination with modern architecture and how design aesthetics can influence human behaviour. As one character announces in Ballard’s short story ‘Low Flying Aircraft’: “The ultimate dystopia is in the inside of one’s own head.”
One of the major themes of the novel successfully conveyed by the film is the fact that the high-rise apartment becomes a character in itself. The tenement block becomes a living, breathing creature, a brooding leviathan which looms over the viewer’s imagination and exerts its malevolent influence over those who dwell inside. Similarly, the interior of the apartment block are imaginatively and stylishly presented. The retro apartments are minimally furnished, chic and spacious and in its representation of the supermarket, the film shuns realism for a 1970s hyper-reality that is resonant with the style of Kubrick. In fact the initial shots of the hotel corridors are reminiscent of The Overlook hotel in The Shining, another film where the setting takes on a monstrous character of its own to manipulate Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.

Meticulous attention to detail has been paid on High-Rise and credit must go to the cinematographer Laurie Rose and the Arts Department led by Mark Tildesley (Production Design), Frank Walsh, Nigel Pollock (Art Direction) Paki Smith (Set Decoration) and Odile Dicks-Mireaux (Costume Design). The film is sumptuous to look at with images that linger long in the memory and will undoubtedly benefit from multiple viewings as there is too much to visually take in at one time. Munroe’s slow-motion suicidal leap from the 39th floor is particularly impressive as are the shots from inside the elevators where multiple mirrors achieve a kaleidoscopic effect which is echoed when Toby Melville (Louis Suc) views the mayhem of the apartment block through his toy kaleidoscope. By concentrating more on Toby’s character, the film departs slightly from the novel, focusing upon the children residing in the high-rise and becoming a reversal of The Lord of the Flies with the adults reverting to barbarism and Toby, a representative of childhood innocence, observing their feral disintegration. When asked by Laing what he sees through his kaleidoscope, Toby replies, “The future.” This is later emphasised when we see the boy listening to his self-made radio broadcasting a speech by Margaret Thatcher eulogising upon the virtues of capitalism.
In addition to focusing on the children, the film also places emphasis on the female residents which rescues it from any accusations of misogyny. Despite being assaulted, raped and confined into servitude, the denouement suggests that any escape from the anarchy of the high-rise will ultimately be the responsibility of the women. Although the film does not have a happy ending, its ambiguity does not entirely reject the possibility of redemption.
One of the ways in which Jump’s script has remained loyal to its source material is in choosing to place the action in the mid-1970s, the period in which the book was published. Some critics have raised their eyebrows at this, but the decision made by Wheatley and Jump is vindicated on a number of levels. Firstly, by setting the film just before the election of the Conservatives in 1979 when the Thatcherite revolution began to dismantle the postwar consensus, the social and political elements are foregrounded into the film. Secondly, although Ballard has been described as a science fiction author, much of his writing resists such simple generic classification. “I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred”[ii] , Ballard once said, claiming his stories were set in the “visionary present.”[iii] This is discernible in the filmed adaptation of High-Rise with its 1970s timescale acting as a comment upon the present social climate, rather than a prophecy of a distant future. Both film and book have an immediacy which makes their brutality even more disturbing.
One of the most prescient features in Ballard’s High-Rise is its anticipation of the gentrification of London which has intensified into a form of social cleansing of areas of the capital. We see this in the social make-up of the residents which has totally excluded the working class, consisting purely of various stratifications of the middle-class, all competing to climb the vertical hierarchical order. On the lower floors dwell the less affluent sections of the middle class, typified by Wilder, a filmmaker prone to outbursts of sudden, senseless violence, whose degeneration is emphasised when his wife serves him a can of dog food for his dinner. Wilder’s initial revolt against the services provided for the lower floors turns increasingly brutal as he first decides to film the events in the high-rise for one of his documentaries before abandoning the project to climb the building in an attempt to murder the architect.
Irons is perfectly cast as the sleazy Royal, his performance a comical blend of amorality and eccentricity. The architectural Ubermensch resides on the 40th floor, the zenith of his own creation and is described in the film as being “intent on colonising the sky.” Initially his Nietzschean Will to Power is unquestioned by his henchmen who are happy to use strong-arm tactics to cement his authority. But as events in the high-rise begin to spiral out of control, he becomes, in his own words, “The architect of my own accident”, and his acolytes become increasingly unruly and disobedient. Royal finally relinquishes his power, claiming that his architectural creation has become a “crucible for change” in which all social, political and moral authority is challenged by primal individualism.
High-Rise can be read as part social satire, and part philosophical tussle between Apollonian Reason and Dionysian anti-rationalism where humanity’s repressed desires come to the fore and the id, gloriously unleashed, is allowed to run riot. At one point towards the end of the film, Royal is served a meal consisting of some unspecified meat. Is it dog? Or horse? Or even worse? Perhaps it is human? We never find out. But rarely in the cinema has evolutionary regression appeared as carnally sexy as the moment when, in close-up, Sienna Miller scoops the meat into her hands to chomp it down, provocatively revealing her teeth in a Darwinian snarl of contempt. The film could also be regarded as dramatising the Fall of Man with the residents rejecting civilisation for anarchy and order for chaos. There are repeated shots of characters and objects hanging or falling from the building, from Munroe’s suicide to slow-motion poetic imagery of glasses, bottles and other detritus recklessly thrown from the balconies. This metaphor is subtly extended by the inclusion of the song ‘Industrial Estate’ by the Mancunian post-punk outfit The Fall, featured just before the closing credits.

The music for the film was composed by ex- Pop Will Eat Itself front man and Grammy and Golden Globe nominee Clint Mansell who ingeniously keeps the 1970s theme alive by including a string arrangement of Abba’s ‘S.O.S.’ which becomes part of the diegesis, when performed at one of Royal’s lavish parties. ‘S.O.S.’ was a top ten hit for the Swedish pop group in the same year that Ballard’s High-Rise was published and is reprised later in the film with Portishead having recorded a version especially for Wheatley, subsequently declaring  that it can only be heard in the movie as it will not be released in any other format. Their version of the song - the first recording the band have made for six years- complements the action perfectly, its brooding synths and Beth Gibbins’ vocal suggestive of mental disintegration, reflecting the psychological and social breakdown we are witnessing upon the screen.
As High-Rise races frantically towards its brutal climax and events become increasingly chaotic, the film incredibly manages to retain its composure. It is owing to the intelligence of the filmmakers, script and the fine performances that help High-Rise keep a tight rein over its action never becoming too over-the-top to defy common sense. Despite its insanity, there is a perverted and wholly satisfying logic to the depravity depicted.
Expect more mayhem in Wheatley’s next film- his first to be set in the US- a gangland shootout starring Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson. Already in the can, Free Fire, is released later this year. Meanwhile, High-Rise’s stylish exuberance confirms Wheatley as the most exciting filmmaker in the country at the moment.
Now, how would you like your Alsatian?

[i] The Guardian 6 March 2016
[ii] J.G. Ballard The Complete Short Stories (London:Flamingo 2001) p. ix.
[iii] Ibid. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Ealing Revisited makes the long list for the Kraszna-Krausz award for Best Moving Image Book and will be displayed in an exhibition as part of the 2013 Sony World Photography Awards at Somerset House, London (26 April- 12 May)

'The Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards are the UK’s leading prizes for books published in the fields of photography and the moving image (including film, television and new media).
With prize money of £10,000 divided between the Best Photography Book Award and the Best Moving Image Book published each year, the Awards celebrate excellence in photography and moving image publishing'. (From the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation website

See here for information:

Friday, 23 November 2012

Here's a link to John Wyver's review of Ealing Revisited on the Illuminations blog

Berberian Sound Studio – Review.
UK, 2012 / Cert 15 / 92 mins
Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou

Following on from his 2009 debut, the rape revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s second directorial feature, Berberian Sound Studio has been receiving much critical acclaim of late. After its success at FrightFest 2012, where it won three prizes in the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor categories, it has recently been announced that the film has received seven nominations for this year’s British Independent Film Awards. The recognition this remarkable, and unsettlingly weird psychological thriller has attracted is well deserved.
            Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s homage to the outrageous blood and sex fuelled “giallo” cinema made in Italy during the 1970s, concerns the mental disintegration of an introverted, but gifted, Home Counties film sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones). Gilderoy, whose mental breakdown is related in a skilfully understated performance by Jones, has moved to Italy to work on an explicit and sadistic horror film, “The Equestrian Vortex”. Strickland shows us the lurid and stylish opening credits to this fictional exploitative shocker at the beginning of the film, an ingenious way of introducing Berberian Sound Studio’s meta-cinematic- “film-within-a-film”- theme. However, this is the only time we glimpse “The Equestrian Vortex”, whose explicit horrors are related to us via snatches of narrative, and through the grisly sound production that Gilderoy has to recreate within the claustrophobic Berberian sound studio.
            Gilderoy gets to work, recording the various effects used to recreate the sounds of murder and mutilation, overdubbing the dialogue and screams of tortured nuns. Most memorably, we see the recording of the atavistic demonical jabbering of a character, wonderfully described as a ‘dangerously aroused goblin’ in “The Equestrian Vortex”’s script. Strickland shows the recording process in close detail throughout, emphasising Berberian Sound Studio’s fascination with the entire filmmaking process. A watermelon is hurled to the studio floor, violently splitting open to recreate the sound of someone leaping to their death and, at one point, Gilderoy tears radishes apart to suggest the sound of a witch having her hair torn out at the roots. Most sickeningly, the sound of sizzling oil in a saucepan becomes the aural representation of a red hot poker being inserted into a nun’s vagina.

Suggestions of sexual, physical, and mental abuse permeate the entire film, personified in the characters of the bullying producer, the suave Francesco Corragio (Cosimo Fusco), and the shadowy figure of the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). There are insinuations of sexual harassment made against the director, who uses his power to intimidate Gilderoy, threatening him when he says he wants to be relieved of his duties. When Gilderoy complains to the director that he is not familiar with working within the horror genre, Santini takes issue with the sound recordist, remarkably claiming that his film ‘is not a horror film, it is real life’.
As the filmmakers force the performers into increasing physical and mental extremes in order to realistically recreate the terror that is depicted on the screen, the fictional narrative of “The Equestrian Vortex” and the diegesis of Berberian Sound Studio begin to horribly overlap. In a disturbing evocation of life imitating art, the boundaries between the fictional torture- and the real torture of the coerced actresses- becomes increasingly blurred. Even Gilderoy willingly participates in the cruelty, his sense of self-identity slowly diminishing under the malignant influence of his environment. As his loneliness and isolation increase, Gilderoy becomes more and more appalled by the task of viciously stabbing and pummelling various foodstuffs in order to recreate the visual depravity, becoming so desensitised by the violence that surrounds him that he is transformed from victim to bully, cranking up the feedback volume in the headphones of one actress in order to distress her sufficiently to solicit a more realistic performance.
As Gilderoy’s crisis of identity becomes increasingly disquieting, Strickland refuses to resort to standard horror film devices to pile on the terror, choosing to heighten Berberian Sound Studio’s palpable sense of paranoia gradually. Initially at least, Gilderoy is transported into a Kafkaesque business environment, where locating expenses cheques becomes a hopeless task, as he in inexplicably moved from department to department, never quite reaching a satisfactory conclusion to his reasonable request for his airfare. From this darkly comic beginning, a subtle and sensual feeling of dread slowly gains momentum, emphasised by the film’s mise en scène and cinematography. Outside the sound studio, the long office corridors resemble the clinical environment of a mental institution, an image complemented by the sound of the recorded screams which persistently echo through the whitewashed walls. All of this is contrasted with the dark, hermetically sealed interior of the studio itself, where the extended use of subjective close-ups add to the sense of claustrophobia, and a number of striking match cuts instil in the viewer a fractured and disjointed sense of time, placing the audience’s perception within Gilderoy’s disturbed state of mind.
Credit must also be given to the film’s sound department, whose brilliant employment of a variety of synth effects and utilisation of heavy and discordant electronic reverberated sound, add to the film’s overall sense of discomfort. It is notable that the BIFA awards have recognised the efforts of the film’s sound editor and recordist, Joakim Sundström and Stevie Haywood, by nominating the pair in the Best Technical Achievement category for their sound design on Beberian Sound Studio.
Taking into consideration its engagement with cinematic processes, critics have sought to compare Berberian Sound Studio with other films that take filmmaking as a central theme, including Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) or even Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). However, the film it perhaps comes closest to in this regard is Peeping Tom (1960), Michael Powell’s sadistic depiction of a serial killer who films his victims at the moment of death. Like Peeping Tom, Berberian Sound Studio starkly highlights film’s exploitative and corrupting ability to transform all of us into voyeurs, and its self-reflexivity calls into question the validity of the cinematic reconstruction of reality. With its postmodern take on the nature of reality, the ambiguity of Berberian Sound Studio’s narrative also comes across at times like a Lynchian bad acid trip, and includes a number of thematic and stylistic nods to Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive in particular. There are also several instantly recognisable formal and thematic echoes of Hitchcock within the film’s taut psychological narrative.
On one level, Berberian Sound Studio is another example of the British horror genre’s delight in tormenting an innocent character by placing them within a threatening location. Gilderoy, like Edward Woodward or Donald Sutherland, becomes yet another hapless Brit, struggling to make sense of their alien environment. Berberian Sound Studio is like a secular Wicker Man without the singing and dancing, or a cold and unemotional Don’t Look Now without the metaphysical baggage. However, despite all of its intertextual referentiality, Strickland’s film, with its synthesis of sound and visual extremes, seems entirely original. Is Gilderoy’s paranoid nightmare merely the result of a mental breakdown? Or are there more malevolent and sinister forces at work here? The enigmatic Berberian Sound Studio provides little in the way of answers, but the film’s power lies within its dark and disturbing perplexities.