Anti-mimesis, Oscar Wilde's philosophical opposition to Aristotelian thinking, believes that life imitates art — not the other way around. Instead of absorbing the world around us and translating it, we soak in forms of art that then inform our points of view.
In "Berberian Sound Studio," Peter Strickland spins anti-mimesis philosophy into the terrifying impetus for a modern giallo, Italy's expressive genre of crime and mystery. It's 1976 and English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been recruited by the titular studio to mix the latest film from renowned giallo director Santini (Antonion Mancino). The down-on-his-luck aural artisan has never worked on a horror film but needs the money — he flies to Italy and begins work on "The Equestrian Vortex" without hesitation. Immersed in the disturbing imagery of the film and stretched thin by the messy inner-workings of his new workplace, Gilderoy finds his psyche slowly deteriorating. He's stuck in his own shadowy, atmospheric hell.
The joy of "Berberian Sound Studio" is in its relentless accuracy to the role of a sound mixer. It's post-production pornography. The lavish production design fills the studio with analog relics, which Strickland fetishizes in close-ups that emphasize process. Feed the magnetic tape, configure the microphones, slowly slide the volume controls up the mixing board — capturing perfect sound is Gilderoy's safe haven and thanks to stark lighting and slow camera movement, we feel why. There's also a gratuitous amount of foley — the creation of cinematic sound effects using exaggerated techniques. We hear that "The Equestrian Vortex" is full of priests gouging witches through their tender flesh, so in turn, "Berbarian Sound Studio" is full of knives slicing through the pulp of a watermelon. Icky, beautiful, and sonically startling.
Like the giallo films it pays tribute to, "Berberian Sound Studio" is more of a sensory experience than a dramatic one. Jones is perfect casting for the schlubby technician. Like Suzy Bannion in "Suspiria," Gilderoy is a fish out of water tortured by his surroundings. With a cockeye and bumbling demeanor, Jones subtly elevates the reactive role, finding comedy and terror in Gilderoy's outsider perspective. Strickland surrounds his lead with the Italian equivalent of a Woody Allen ensemble. Good fun without too much to say or do.
"Berberian Sound Studio" unspools like a improperly loaded reel of tape. It cranks along smoother and composed, building tension as Gilderoy is tormented by the caustic attitudes of his coworkers and the accompanying bloody imagery of their film. As the gears turn, the film intentionally goes off the rails. Strickland favors psychedelia as Gilderoy's nightmares manifest themselves. It's mesmerizing, yet without fleshed out characters and an immediate danger, the images stand alone and incomplete. "Berberian Sound Studio" is sharp stab at exploring anti-mimesis, but for Gilderoy's life to truly imitate art, it needed to go deeper than just sounds and pictures.
SCORE: 5.3 / 10