Tag Archives: Peter Strickland

CAPSULE: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

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DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Mancino

PLOT: Gilderoy, an English foley artist, takes on a job at an Italian studio to work on a horror film, and his mind begins unspooling.

COMMENTS: My dear Mr Strickland—I so very much wish that you could keep focused! Having now seen half of his feature-length output, it is clear that he’s a man with many, many ideas. Too many, perhaps? More likely, he suffers from too little discipline. Berberian Sound Studio is a fascinating movie, with a creepy vibe that fills like a soap bubble slowly ballooning until it pops two-thirds the way through, leaving a splattered mess of shiny viscosity on the eyes (and ears) of the viewer. Ground this film all you like with a shy, affable performance from Toby Jones; the moment you turn him into a sadistic Italian, all bets are off.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an awkward Englishman with an awkward name who arrives at an Italian sound studio both ready to work and to receive compensation for his flight expenses. The work ahead of him is ample; the reimbursement, less so. Never mind; under the alternately conciliatory and remonstrative guidance of producer Francesco Coraggio, Gilderoy dives into the project. The brainchild of giallo director Giancarlo Santini, The Equestrian Vortex is, from the sound of it, a hyper-violent, hyper-stylized film involving a witch’s academy, featuring plenty of flashes back to horrible (and “historically accurate”) interrogations of suspected witches. Gilderoy finds the on-screen violence increasingly hard to handle.

The “on-screen violence” is never actually displayed. In fact, other than the opening credits for The Equestrian Vortex (its score composed by a “Goblin”-esque band called “Hymenoptera”), we see none of Santini’s opus. But we hear so very much. The droning introduction of the scenes for post-production dubbing almost always involves the phrase “flashback to witch’s interrogation.” Countless fruits and vegetables, both large (chopped watermelon) and small (plucked radish stems), act as the aural stand-ins for violent stabbings, hair-tearing, and everything in between. (The sound effect method for red-hot poker inserted vaginally is almost comically mundane.) Gilderoy’s practical effects team, two gents by the name of Massimo and Massimo, perform their slices, bubble-blowing, and wrenchings with deadpan professionalism.

The “behind the curtains” view of foley in the 1970s is by far the most interesting aspect of Berberian Sound Studio. There are plenty of sinisterly odd characters: aside from Massimo and Massimo, there’s the secretary from hell, the creepily congenial director, and the tragi-cryptic leading lady. But while this homage to giallo and sound becomes rather confusing, this never translates into weird—the sudden onset of head-scratchers undermines the atmosphere at the same time as it blasts a hole in the plot’s coherence.

As in his latest movie, In Fabric, Strickland (who also wrote both films) cannot keep himself from branching out to the point of muddying otherwise compelling experiences. These captivating messes are done with some kind of precision, I have no doubt, but I wish he could turn down the background noise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly distinctive and all but unclassifiable, a musique concrète nightmare, a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety, with strange-tasting traces of black comedy and movie-buff riffs. It is seriously weird and seriously good.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IN FABRIC (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leo Bill, , Hayley Squires, Julian Barratt

PLOT: Sheila, a divorcee in the market for a new man, purchases a new red dress for a series of dates; things do not turn out well for her. Separately, Reg Speaks is a washing machine repairman about to marry is longtime girlfriend; after wearing that same red dress on his stag night, things turn out poorly for him, as well.

Still from In Fabric (2018)

COMMENTS: For capsule reviews, we aim to describe the action in one sentence. However, among the number of odd things about In Fabric is the fact that this is really two films in one: a pretty good feature-length story about Sheila’s experiences with a cursed red dress, and a much weirder, shorter film about Reg’s experiences with that same dress. There are plenty of strange things going on in this movie, and in many ways it should qualify for apocryphally weird status. Unfortunately, while the graft is forgivable, it fails overall.

Peter Strickland, who wrote and directed, clearly has an obsession with 1970s exploitation—his two previous films both focus on that decade and that genre—and his penchant for shines through brightly. The red of the dress and the red lighting of the strange advertisements for “Dentley and Sopers Trusted Department Store” are the most obvious tributes, with the movie’s palette generally mimicking whatever evil form of technicolor was used by the original giallists. In Fabric could be viewed as a love letter to that arty vein of horror, albeit a letter with an incredibly long postscript.

I enjoyed watching this, despite a glaring flaw: it was difficult to commit to the characters. Sheila’s tale ultimately left me indifferent, but the story of “Reg Speaks” was more in the transcendent mold, almost literally. Reg’s last name is strange, but apt. Though a lowly washing machine mechanic, he has something of a super power: the ability to bring listeners to an orgasmic trance while speechifying on the finer details of the problems vexing broken machines. In the world of In Fabric his reputation is such that even the bank managers whom he sees about a loan know about it, and want him to do a “role-playing” exercise so they can enjoy his mesmeric talents. (Julian Barratt plays one of these bank managers, with a performance that expertly rides along the razor’s edge of hilarious and mundane. Describing a memo about having a “meaningful handshake”, he explains, “It’s written in a fun, easy language, with a cartoon at the end that summarizes key points.”)

Fatma Mohamed, as the chief store clerk, stands out among the madness. She makes one believe she could be an alien, a demon, or perhaps a mannequin brought to life by some eccentric paranormal force. Her lines (“The hesitation in your voice: soon to be an echo in the spheres of retail” or “dimensions and proportions transcend the prisms of our measurements”) sound like ornately translated Italian as delivered by a supernatural facsimile of a sales woman.

Strickland will hopefully sort his visions out enough to make that truly weird, and truly worthwhile, movie in the future (under the guidance, perhaps, of Ben Wheatley, executive producer here). But, measuring In Fabric, we find all the pieces are there, but he’s crafted something altogether ill-fitting.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s less engaging is the suspicion that neither of these stories was substantial enough for a feature film on their own, and so they were combined to make a justifiable whole. The film’s demented satire of consumer culture and weird diversions into psychosexual nightmare fuel are less reliant on a coherent narrative arc, however, and Strickland’s unique ability to convey the sense of touch in an audio-visual medium isn’t dependent on story at all.”–Katie Rife, The AV Club (contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, , Eugenia Caruso

PLOT: An entomology professor and her student are very much in love, but their romance is threatened by the latter’s preference for BDSM practices in the bedroom.

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WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the subject matter might seem strange or unusual to some viewers, the film itself is simply an examination of two women who are going through a trial in their relationship. There is some bizarre dream imagery and a choppy narrative style, but nothing truly Weird.

COMMENTS: The Duke of Burgundy opens with a drawn-out sexual role play as the wide-eyed Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) enters the house of domineering mistress Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to act as housekeeper. Evelyn scrubs and shines and soaks as Cynthia thinks of more demeaning tasks for her to do, ending the day with punishment for unsatisfactory work in the form of urination into Evelyn’s mouth. This scene returns in multiple forms later, as we see different perspectives and points in time, serving as an anchor for our understanding of their relationship. The film unfolds over a semester at the isolated women’s school where Cynthia lectures and Evelyn studies, but most of the focus is on their private moments at home. As the persistent Evelyn comes up with new ways to be dominated, she believes she’s found the perfect partner in Cynthia, who is willing to act the dominatrix if it makes her lover happy. However, it soon becomes clear that the older woman is uncomfortable with the parts Evelyn creates for her, struggling to emotionally and physically abuse her lover even in the context of role playing, and then growing to resent her for her increasing demands.

Strickland made waves two years ago with his stunning, unnerving ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio, in which a British sound technician sinks into a paranoid fever dream while shooting a gory horror in Italy. Here, the director again treats the eyes to a sultry palette, ornate settings, and thoughtful camerawork, matched by an effective soundtrack that pairs fuzzy synths with the hum of insects. The opening credits use freeze-frame and oversaturation to reference vintage softcore film, but thanks to the soundtrack and visceral color choices, other moments are more reminiscent of a slasher. The retro vibe is heightened by the somewhat ambiguous setting and time period. Fashions and hairstyles suggest the 1950s or 60s, the aesthetic is more 70s, the landscape and architecture is classical, evoking rural Italy (though filmed in Hungary), and everyone speaks English with different European accents. He clearly devotes much of his time to mixing and matching different film references, from art house to grindhouse, but ultimately the focus is on the characters. Even the weirder touches, including frequent close-ups of insects and stark shots of architecture, are meant to communicate the sense of dread that is hanging over Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship as they move into darker sexual territory. There is a palpable feeling of intimacy in Strickland’s approach, utilizing close-ups and lingering shots to effect a kind of quietude over most of the proceedings. It is easily to believe in this relationship, though the world around them is often hazy.

On paper The Duke of Burgundy sounds like it should be a sleazy straight male fantasy about lesbian kink, and yet Strickland forgoes all sensationalism—there isn’t that much (explicit) sex or even nudity shown. Evelyn’s mental stimulation is highlighted, as she derives pleasure from being locked in a chest, verbally berated, and sat on by Cynthia. The BDSM scenes are often treated with humor, not to make fun of those practices but to reveal the kind of goofy accidents or strange conversations that might come with it, and to break the tension for an unfamiliar audience. At other times they are presented in a cold, almost sterile manner, with Cynthia eventually injecting a form of revenge into their role play. What is both wonderful and striking about this film is its undertone of normalcy, its relatable and honestly touching portrayal of a romantic struggle, despite its apparently sexploitative premise. The basic story could easily be rewritten with different conflicts, with different genders, with different settings; the BDSM elements are both central to the narrative and secondary to the overarching theme. The film asks if sexual preferences can damage an otherwise strong relationship, and if personal contentment can exist without complete sexual fulfillment. It allows us to peek into something extremely personal, but universal, intermingling with our own insights and experiences, with a dreamlike style so lush and distinctive we still walk away feeling like we’ve left behind a world of fantasy. It might not be List-worthy, but it is certainly worth seeing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the question of who’s really in charge of these scenarios is complicated. Exactly the same deceptive quality can be found in the dreamlike artifice of Strickland’s film itself, set in a lush and aristocratic European fantasyland that’s entirely nonspecific as to geography and chronology… But while Strickland’s films already aren’t like anyone else’s, his real secret is that even in this strange constructed world, his characters feel like real people struggling with issues that aren’t exotic at all.”–Andrew O’Hehir, “Salon” (contemporaneous)