The second feature from writer/director Peter Strickland is a long term project, having started life as a short feature in 2005, seven long years before the completed feature opened at the 2012 Edinburgh Film Festival, but in that time the concept has not diluted or lost any of its unsettling power, as a British sound engineer finds himself engaged in a nightmarish project in a hostile environment, the sounds he is creating becoming the soundtrack to the film we are watching.
Toby Jones is Gilderoy, a quiet man who we first meet as he shuffles out of focus down a long corridor, carrying his suitcase, stooped and balding, his heavy footsteps accompanied by the clack of typewriter keys and the rattle of the telephone dial, with faint birdsong in the background, every sound heightened and fully experienced.
It is the seventies, it is Italy, and Gilderoy has been employed by director Giancarlo Santini to work on the sound mix of his new work but rather than the expected documentary on horses, La Vortice Equestrian, never seen other than the lurid opening titles, bears the hallmarks of the giallo, as the young women of the school stumble upon a satanic plot and witches. Gilderoy is shocked, initially at the subject, and at the deteriorating temperament of his host, the producer Francesco, who repeatedly blocks requests for vital expenses to be reimbursed or to question the director’s vision. “This is not a horror film, this is a Santini film.”
Surrounded by reel to reel recorders and ravaged root vegetables used to create the sounds of tortured flesh, the power of the film is in Jones’ performance as he unravels under the pressure of the demands of his uncooperative artistes and the extreme visuals he is employed to accompany. Styled in many ways a bloodless giallo itself, the narrative is fractured, descending into dreamlike fragments of miscommunication, the film operator a shadowy figure only ever presented as a hand in black leather gloves.
Berberian Sound Studio is both a masterclass in cinema technique and a subversion of such, the director revealing the cards in his hand to the audience then dealing them regardless, knowing the audience are powerless in their conditioned responses to the language of cinema. While a homage to the giallo cinema of Italy, the work of David Lynch is also present in the tight focused attention on the audio equipment and crawling bugs of Lost Highway set against sonic howls, the whole film resembling a night at Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio, where we know the artists mime to a backing track, but we are so consumed by the performance we forget until the sound cuts out.
While of appeal to those who love the genre and to those interested in the art of cinema, the disjointed later scenes and abstract conclusion may not satisfy a more mainstream audience, nor will the film translate well to home viewing, relying as it does on the darkened silence of the cinema to work, the flashing red sign demanding SILENZIO, the absence of the comforts and distractions of home, to create the sense of dread and isolation that Gilderoy comes to know.
Berberian Sound Studio is currently on general release