I’ll be blogging about my top films from 2013 in a day or so, and here are two that will be mentioned again, whether in that top list or not. Despite being released in 2012, neither really made their way state-side until this past year.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a good cousin to the recent, awesome Amer. Berberian is sort of a giallo-homage that also nods to Blow-up and The Conversation.
Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound designer from the UK who’s been called to Italy to help post-dub a horror film (or, as the director notes, not a horror film, but ‘a Santini film.’). Things start to get weird fast: there’s no record of Gilderoy having been on a flight to Italy; the actresses in the film warn about Santini; part of the sound tape is destroyed.
Soon, the line between reality and fantasy blurs. That’s not really a new thing in films, but Strickland’s presentation is slick, the images are beautiful, there are a lot of great sound in-jokes, and Jones gives a fantastic performance.
The look of Berberian is frequently hazy. This is the sound engineer’s room, which looks more like the lair of a serial killer:
Strickland plays up the hyper-real nature of things with surreal shots like this one, where one of the dubbing scream-queen actresses starts in a medium close-up in the booth, and, as she screams, the camera pulls away dramatically until she’s a speck amidst blackness or, more accurately within the context of the film, a prisoner:
There are two main locations in the film: Gilderoy’s apartment and the sound studio. From early on in the film Strickland connects them through tricky edits. It all seems innocuous at first, but will build to something more later. Here’s one of them. Gilderoy catches a spider (seen throughout the film) on a piece of newspaper. He bends down to blow it gently away-
-and the spider lands on a piece of Savoy cabbage now in the sound studio. It’s a match cut and one that makes the two spaces, though entirely distinct, seem very unified and close:
Some of these transitions are simpler, as where Gilderoy stands in the studio and walks to camera blacking it out-
-and then walks away from the camera, though now in his apartment:
These transitions become more relevant at a climactic scene towards the beginning of the third act of the film where Gilderoy, in his apartment, hears an intruder rattling the door. he grabs a knife and approaches it warily:
He opens the door, disappearing into a darkness so murky that it seems pulled from The Lost Highway:
And then he’s magically and impossibly in the sound studio:
From here the film spirals out of control. Gilderoy becomes a literal part of the film, he inexplicably speaks Italian, and, at one point, his image burns up (beautifully) as though his identity is as fragile as a piece of celluloid:
Some images from Berberian are simply beautiful, like this one:
Other sections are comical. There’s a lot of emphasis on fruit and vegetables for foley-
-so when Gilderoy is offered a piece of watermelon to eat later in the film it’s as though he’s eating his own brain.
One of the more subtle films of 2013, Museum Hours follows Johann (Bobby Summer), a guard at Kunsthistorisches Museum – the art museum in Vienna. He meets Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), a Canadian in Vienna to see her comatose cousin. The two strike up a friendship talking about art and the city.
Museum Hours is a great film for many reasons. Firstly, it subverts expectations almost immediately. What seems like a classic, cliche romantic intro is nothing at all. Secondly, it takes its time and has the equal agenda of showing the relationship, the city, and art.
Sometimes Jem Cohen, the director, makes direct connections between art and life, as in this series of two shots:
Much of Museum Hours features what looks like natural light, off-center framing, and realistic, almost mundane locations, and frequently with Anne:
These frames aren’t only to emphasize her loneliness, but to prove a larger point, which is initiated by an odd, interesting, long digression in the middle of the film where a lecturer in the museum gives a bunch of patrons a talk on Bruegel, specifically a small Christ-like child in the painting The Conversion of Paul:
I really liked this section simply because it was a good lecture. But I also liked it because the speaker’s point – that sometimes the center of a painting isn’t what/where we’d expect it to be – refers to the greater film as well. Just like the small Christ is off-center and harmlessly framed, Anne frequently is as well. That which surrounds is as important, in other words.
Museum Hours is also funny. When Anne comments, while looking at a painting, that she had a boyfriend who loved to walk around naked as though he were wearing a tuxedo, Cohen cuts to a sequence of shots where museum patrons are suddenly shown naked, though their demeanor doesn’t change:
It’s wryly funny, another example of the closeness of life and art, and made all the more interesting in that it’s neither Anne’s nor Johann’s POV. Instead, it’s just for us, the viewer. We’re looking at someone watching a painting as though they themselves are a painting.
There are several shots throughout the city of art and trash thrown haphazardly on the streets:
It’s not frustrating or a woeful look at the state of Vienna, but instead a look at the ravenous way in which people consume all things visual. Indeed, much of Cohen’s shots around the city emphasize found-art, from posters-
Like any good European filmmaker (that’s tongue in cheek, but not always far from the truth), Cohen shoots things at a distance frequently. One of the more poignant, tearful moments is framed all in a quiet wide-shot:
And here’s another frame that I really liked, in part because of the beautiful soft lighting, but also because of the obscured way of looking. As Johann mentions earlier in the film, there’s always something new to be found in a painting; the same is true of his frames. Come to think of it, Museum Hours reminds me a bit of Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy. Both seem to be about how we look and what becomes meaningful to look at.
As a random side note, this film was produced by Patti Smith and dedicated to Vic Chestnutt, yet there’s hardly any (if any at all) diegetic music in the entire movie.