Sound is a sacrament in the Berberian Sound Studio: it enters innocuously through the ears before transubstantiating into something more sinister. Peter Strickland’s film is utterly distinctive as it is unclassifiable. Berberian Sound Studio is a psychological/metaphysical implosion of anxiety, with sour traces of black comedy and witty allusions to Italian horror films of the 1970s. Sure, the film nods to David Lynch as much as it does Polanski, and the nasty, secretive studio is a little like the tortured protagonist’s screening room in Peeping Tom. But these comparisons are slight and give no real indication as to how boldly individual this film is. In fact, it takes more inspiration from the world of electronic and synth creations and is close in spirit to Kafka’s The Castle or to the Gothic literary tradition of Bram Stoker and Ann Radcliffe – it takes the world of English innocents abroad in a sensual, mysterious landscape and completely reinvents it.
Toby Jones plays a mousy sound engineer called Gilderoy from Dorking in the 1970s; he has taken a job in a post-production studio in Italy – the Berberian sound studio of the title. I presume that these facilities are in Rome, but there is to be no high-minded cinephile swooning over the history of Cinecittà and the like. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. This cheesy, crummy place provides the electronic musical score, sound effects and dialogue overdubbing on low-budget Italian pulp shockers – the genre made famous by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci – rich with the thematic trinity of sex, violence and Satanism. With its nasty corridors and distant, repeated and meaningless screams, the Berberian sound studio building feels more like a psychiatric hospital than production studio.
And at the center of this sinister sonic orgy is lonely, homesick Gilderoy working on an explicit horror called The Equestrian Vortex. Inside the studio itself, bored foley artists aurally simulate human atrocity by whacking and stabbing vegetables, while female stars give operatic screams in the sound booth. Gilderoy is confronted with the film’s dyspeptic producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and the elegant and egomaniac director Santini (Antonio Mancino). Gilderoy baffles and irritates everyone with his maladroit Englishness and nerdy insistence on being reimbursed for his expenses, an issue which is ultimately to raise unexpected questions – namely, how the hell did he get this job and (more importantly) why the hell did he accept it? I mean, Gilderoy certainly seems to be a whiz at creating new effects, but the film suggests that might not be the only reason he was hired. Slowly, Gilroy becomes immersed in the pure sensual horror of sound: the screams, the scrapes, the clunks and clicks, the sudden electro stabs, and the dusty silences that bring out his inner fears. At the mixing desk, he is part high priest, part human sacrifice in the black mass of cinema production.
Its interpolation in this inner drama of Gilderoy’s mental breakdown is a great moment. He believes this world to be gentle and comforting, and the poignant letters from his mother daily confirm him in both this view and his growing disdain for the world in which he finds himself now. But might Santini and The Equestrian Vortex be saying something more honest about the natural world? Ultimately, it is not at all clear if the Berberian sound studio is corrupting him, or revealing to Gilderoy his awful true destiny.
Berberian director Peter Strickland slyly shows us the opening credits of The Equestrian Vortex on screen, wittily created for the cognoscenti of course, but this is far from the affectionate, celebratory approach of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse movies. It could be that someone seeing this will be moved to create a feature-length pastiche of The Equestrian Vortex – but that I think would be to misread the detached, alienated and icy spirit in which this film within a film is treated. Crucially, its action is never shown on screen: we see only the mashed and dismembered vegetables, emblems of violence, comic and barbaric. What is most important is the sound, and all the occult equipment for creating and manipulating the sound effects. This is analogue sound – sound that takes up space in the real world as material to be shaped like paint or stone or marble – and Strickland imbues this pre-digital world with passion and fascination.
Toby Jones, with a face suggesting cherubic innocence, vulnerability and cruelty, gives the performance of his career as Gilroy. Broadcast, the electronic duo who scored Berberian Sound Studio, rise to the top of the modern recording-artist-turned-film-composer group, and; director, Peter Strickland, emerges as a formidable film-maker of this generation.
Berberian Sound Studio is one of the best films I’ve seen in all of the years I’ve been a Netflix subscriber. I cannot recommend enough.