Despite the fanboyishness of Berberian Sound Studio, the way it shows how sound can change our lives is enthralling.
From the outside, Berberian Sound Studio seems like a pretty unappealing prospect to your average movie-goer. Buttressed by a strange story about a sound engineer from Dorking who goes mad while working on an Italian horror flick, it appears to be, above all else, a grand homage to the Italian slashers of the Sixties and Seventies. Naturally awash with references to the masters of ‘giallo’ – as the genre came to be known – it seems designed only to gratify the anorak viewer, delighting in various nods and winks, as well as the sight of the analogue Foley techniques our hero, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), employs.
All this is undoubtedly the source of its charm for some, as well as the reason why so many critics have been lapping it up. But beneath its masturbatory manoeuvres is something strangely universal.
The film begins with an ostensibly simple and unremarkable scene. Gilderoy, pottering nervously down the halls of the Berberian Sound Studio, meets a surly receptionist who points him in the direction of a sound-editing suite where the producer is waiting for him. Gilderoy introduces himself, takes a seat and is shown the opening frames of The Equestrian Vortex. Going by the title alone, Gilderoy had assumed he was working on the sort of twee, pastoral films he worked on in his custom-built studio shed in Surrey. As it turns out, however, it is a gory, exploitation horror, complete with bloody scenes that turn Gilderoy’s delicate, Home Counties stomach. The producer beckons in two gormless engineers, who proceed to demonstrate the sort of work Gilderoy will be undertaking, as they smash watermelons with meat cleavers to accompany the gory scenes projected before them.
As seemingly innocuous, if somewhat strange, as this expositional moment is, it remains incredibly sinister. Any glimpse of The Equestrian Vortex itself is denied to us, and remains out of view for the rest of the film. Instead it is the sound – of the projector, the whirring tape reels and the squelch of the fruit - which creates this atmosphere. It is the magic of movie soundtracking which is the film’s true subject. Now, this may appear to be an even more abstract and unapproachable focus for an already pretentious-seeming film, but the way in which Strickland explores sound’s ability to consume, move and alter us is enthralling and surprisingly poignant.
Working in the dingy, windowless studios, surrounded by the seedy director Santini (Antonio Mancino), his mute, goggle-eyed technicians and an elderly engineer who plays the role of Santini’s Igor-like assistant, Gilderoy becomes increasingly unhinged. He dives into his work like the professional he is, but mixing the sounds of screams and blood spattering draws him even deeper into a dark and unsettling space. Through intricate and overwhelming sound collages, we are taken along for the ride as the audio appears to forcibly drive the film, as well as Gilderoy, to the very brink of insanity.
Retiring each night to his temporary digs, Gilderoy listens to old recordings of rustling trees, babbling brooks and his home doorbell. He reads letters from his mother which do little else than inform him about the birds which are nesting in the back garden. These moments of retreat into the sounds of home lays testament to sound’s ability to transport us to wildly different places, while providing some of the film’s most humanising and affecting scenes. Toby Jones, perhaps better known for his supporting roles, steals the screen with his subtly brilliant performance.
Just as Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist provided a celebration of movie magic guised as a piece of silent-era nostalgia, Berberian Sound Studio is a joyous but chilling tribute to the transcendental capabilities of the soundtrack wrapped up in giallo homage. Rather than merely catering to fan boys, it explores the profound way cinema can take all of us into strange and unknown territory. This film really does announce the arrival of one of Britain’s most exciting and daring new filmmakers.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.