Directed by: Peter Strickland. Written by: Peter Strickland. Starring: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Susanna Cappellaro, Fatma Mohamed, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Antonio Mancino. Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland. Editing: Chris Dickens. Music: Broadcast. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 94 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 8.9
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a psychological thriller/horror set in the 1970s, focuses on a timid, lonely English recording engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones) who gradually loses his mind while working on a fictional Italian giallo. Written and directed by Strickland, it uses sound in an inventive and disturbing fashion, relying on the power of suggestion while eschewing traditionally-favoured visual shocks, and has the kind of uneasy, troublesome mood that ensures it lingers in the mind for a considerable period after viewing. Though well regarded by critics – with some even suggesting it was the best film of 2012 – it received a more mixed reception from cinemagoers: a 6.2 rating on IMDB and, surprisingly, one star out of five on Netflix suggest that it has left more people baffled and irritated than enthralled. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: Jones actually looks like a ‘normal’ person – in contrast to the usual popular reliance on male or female eye candy in horror – while its fetishism of analogue recording equipment and the reliance on an obscure branch of Italian cinema possibly tested the patience or alienated many. Most importantly of all, when the film blurs the lines between reality and fiction in the final act – successfully, I think – it demands that the viewer also lets go of what was, up to that point, a perfectly clear narrative, which is of course going to frustrate anyone who likes to be guided along by such archaic concepts as logic and lucidity.
The film begins with Gilderoy arriving for his first day of work in Italy. His enthusiasm is rapidly diminished in the wake of initial meetings with unfriendly receptionist Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), overbearing and aggressive producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), pretentious director and womaniser Santini (Antonio Mancino) and assorted oddball Karloff-esque studio hands, many of whom insult the English engineer in Italian. Language becomes an instant barrier – the first line of the film is ‘Do you speak English?’ – and Gilderoy’s attempts to secure a refund for his plane ticket becomes a Kafka-esque thread about impenetrable bureaucracy and miscommunication. Meanwhile the mild-mannered Englishman is shocked to discover that he is going to be working on a brutal horror – The Equestrian Vortex, authentic-looking titles for which are included by Strickland at the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio – and not, as he believed, a nature documentary about horses. Gilderoy’s job is to record a number of actors (including Chiara D’Anna, who has a larger part in Strickland’s recent third film The Duke Of Burgundy) as they run through a range of eerie vocal musical interludes, screams and other odd noises, and he must also act as a foley artist, bashing, tearing, stabbing and chopping cabbages, marrows and other vegetables to create bone-crunching noises to accompany The Equestrian Vortex’s disturbing images.
In a number of scenes the camera rests on Gilderoy’s horrified face as he watches the brutal horror film unfold, often sitting through repeated scenes of rape and torture and recording the same sounds over and over again, though we do not see what he sees (the mind duly boggles but we do see brief titles and descriptions of the scenes). Exposed to such extremities for the first time Gilderoy attempts to cope by clinging to familiar, comforting memories: the pastoral world he apparently left behind in England, including the relative peace of his home studio (a garden shed) and the gentleness of a bucolic nature documentary he worked on. He is also calmed by the daily letters he receives from his mother, which are at first filled with news about roosting chiffchaffs but eventually begin to mirror Gilderoy’s own dark state of mind. By contrast the natural world in Italy is represented by decaying, discarded sound studio vegetables and the presence of a spider, a symbol often associated with slow death and entrapment but also, in literature, representative of manipulated thinking to bring about the construction of a new, different life (an idea that is entirely relevant to Berberian Sound Studio‘s final act).
Gilderoy’s psychological condition worsens and he begins to form friendships with the sympathetic (and equally-maltreated) actresses also working in the studio, but as his grip on reality loosens the differences between the individual women begin to blur, and the engineer cannot rely on their friendship or their advice. Toby Jones, a fine character actor, is on great form here, at first selling Gilderoy’s discomfort, shock, frustration and slightly lecherous leanings upon arrival in Italy before nailing the character’s later despair and self-loathing as he effectively ends up as the star in his own personal horror film, using sound as an instrument of torture and apparently trapped in a grim, eternal loop (hence all those tape cartridges spooling in a circular motion). This must have been an incredibly difficult part to get right, and it looks as though Strickland has directed him well: it’s clear Jones understands the aim and tone of the film and he carries off the character’s transition with aplomb.
Admittedly during the film’s 90 minutes very little actually happens; this is very much a mood piece, taking its time while referencing the gialli made by Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino et al, and recreating their low-budget world during its supposed 1970s heyday without ever becoming misty-eyed (Strickland is a fan, first and foremost, but this is no Tarantino / Rodriguez homage to exploitation cinema, and his enthusiasm is firmly kept in check). The film’s colour palette, plus lingering shots that focus on spooling tape reels, masses of wires and various pieces of bulky, dust-laden equipment also help to establish a sense of time and place, while also warmly celebrating an era of pre-digital filmmaking. Recently Jim Jarmusch adopted a similar approach with the retro-fetishism of Tom Hiddleston’s vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, another idiosyncratic work finding its own space in the margins of the genre horror, and one which also benefitted from a deliberately unhurried pace.
Berberian Sound Studio is a challenging film, not particularly scary but very unsettling nonetheless; while Jarmusch’s film is a comfortable, relaxing feature to sit through, the quieter moments here are often abruptly punctured by jarring shrieks and other strange noises, while the band Broadcast’s work on the soundtrack also adds to the creepy, unnerving feel. However it’s not completely straight: there is a certain warped sense of humour at play that nods to the darker British TV sitcoms of the 1970s – I found myself thinking of the daydreaming and repetition in The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin on more than one occasion, for example – and Strickland is keen to highlight the fact that the charm of a giallo lies partly in how ridiculous its extremities are: you have to laugh when characters here are submerging cabbages in water to soundtrack the drowning of a witch, or when eyes bulge in recording booths as actors pretend be possessed and squeeze out bizarre, unearthly noises.
The film deliberately falls apart at the end, bringing to mind the work of David Lynch with its disintegrating logic and identity swapping; this is apparently intentional, with the ‘Club Silencio’ scene in Mulholland Drive duly referenced by a flashing red studio sign, which repeatedly warns ‘Silenzio’ with distinct foreboding. I like the fact it ends with unanswered questions and little by way of explanation, and I’m keen to see Strickland’s two other films as a result of his work here. Aside from its creeping sense of terror and all-round weirdness Berberian Sound Studio also provides insight into foley and dubbing work, if you’re interested in the technicalities of filmmaking, while hardcore fans of gialli will apparently find plenty of in-jokes and references to geek out on. It’s also another win for Warp Films, an independent studio that is consistently delivering bold, creative and unusual work from a number of exciting filmmakers. Highly recommended.