Is it a bad sign when you go to Wikipedia because you aren’t sure what the movie you’ve just watched is about? That’s what I did after watching Berberian Sound Stage. I gather from the reviews I’ve read that a lot of people think this film is a work of genius, which means maybe I’m missing something. Maybe.
Gilderoy is an English sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a movie he thinks is about horses. Too late, he discovers that the film is a giallo (an Italian thriller with mystery and horror elements) about witches. Berberian Sound Stage is set in the 70’s – the heyday of giallo – and the sound is dubbed in later, which is why Gilderoy’s services are needed. Members of the tech crew wear black gloves, another tribute to giallo.
Gilderoy is a pro. He’s also a little middle-aged man who lives with his mom in the English countryside. He doesn’t understand the language, so when the Italians speak amongst themselves he thinks they might be talking about him. Sometimes they are. They’re also trying to cheat him out of his plane fare; at one point the producer lectures Gilderoy about the joys of working for free.
Berberian Sound Stage begins with two plots. The giallo’s plot involves witches, torture and murder. The producer has fits making his starlets scream convincingly because the director – who does nothing but party – chooses his girlfriends as actresses. This leads to a subplot about sexual harassment that casts Gilderoy in a sympathetic light, but that plot never goes anywhere.
Gilderoy spends his days making skillets hiss and smashing watermelons with hammers to simulate the burning and piercing of human flesh. Since Gilderoy is a sensitive soul this bothers him. Why he doesn’t just quit is unclear. At Berberian Sound Stage’s halfway point a third storyline unfolds, which is when the plot fractures and this movie falls apart for me.
There are many things to like about Berberian Sound Stage. The movie looks great, with a spooky, atmospheric vibe, and Toby Jones’ performance as Gilderoy is excellent. I found the behind-the-scenes stuff about 1970’s movie sound work mildly interesting. I like movies, but – aside from the writing – don’t care about how they’re made.
The problem with Berberian Sound Stage is the plot; by the end I had no idea what was happening. I do think that sometimes plot can be overrated, but another element of the movie needs to step up, and that doesn’t happen here. Like the dubbing in a giallo, where the moving lips and the voice coming from the mouth don’t quite mesh, Berberian Sound Stage never quite comes together as a movie for me.