In the 1970s, a British sound technician is brought to Italy to work on the sound effects for a gruesome horror film. His nightmarish task slowly takes over his psyche, driving him to confront his own past. Berberian Sound Studio is many things: an anti-horror film, a stylistic tour de force, and a dream of cinema. As such, it offers a kind of pleasure that is rare in films, while recreating in a highly original way the pleasures of Italian horror cinema.
Psychedelic aesthetics, psychogenic fugues - it is the disorientating giallo Lynch might have made.
No one saw it coming. Defying all predictability, Peter Strickland’s 2009 debut Katalin Varga was an English film telling a Romanian-language rape/revenge story set to eclectic soundscapes by Nurse With Wound.
Now, just as improbably, his follow-up is a bi-lingual tale of two halves (still with the odd snatch of Nurse With Wound for the sharp-eared) set in the claustrophobic world of audio post-production for a 1970s Italian horror – except that Berberian Sound Studio is itself dressed in the same vividly hallucinatory giallo stylings, with a Lynchian twist.
The film opens with a reel-to-reel tape player starting up, except that only the sound is sharp, with the impressionistic images taking their time to come into focus. Here, acoustics – and the ambiguities associated with them – will come to the fore, as sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) mixes the ADR, foley work and musical score for a brutal and clearly misogynistic film that we constantly hear but almost never see – even if the garish black-and-red opening credits to this film-within-a-film replace Berberian Sound Studio’s own title sequence.
It will not be the first time that the boundaries between film and reality are breached – and the ‘Silenzio’ sign that repeatedly flashes red whenever recording is taking place serves as a clear indicator, at least to those familiar with Mulholland Drive, that there will be more to this film than at first meets the eye (and ear). Like the heroines of the Suspiria-like film he is working on, Gilderoy is lost in an environment that he does not fully comprehend. More used to children’s television and local documentaries, he is the archetypically reserved Englishman out of his depth in Italy, with linguistic isolation only adding to his sense of alienation.
Exploited by his hard-nosed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), manipulated by the lecherous director Santini (Antonio Mancino), and treated with officious contempt by the production’s secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou), Gilderoy soon wearies of having both to listen to and help create endless recordings of female suffering, and is sustained only by his mother’s letters from their home in idyllic Dorking. Yet as the audio from one scene starts bleeding crosstalk into the next, and as the technician’s life and the film on screen begin to merge, what Gilderoy sees, dreams and overlooks all blur into one paranoid nightmare of uneasy complicity. He may want out of the picture, but as Francesco insists, “It is just a film – you are part of it.”
With all its classic giallo trappings, right down to the unseen projectionist’s black leather gloves, Berberian Sound Studio seems to have an inevitably murderous narrative trajectory, but as its sensory overload never quite gives way to the expected sensationalism, Strickland disorients viewers with a sly meta-horror that reflects upon both the artifice that goes into genre films, and the uncomfortable reality that can underlie their vicious depiction of women.