Director: Peter Strickland
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Berberian Sound Studio is a film that takes the aesthetics of a dead genre and places them under a microscope, magnifying the style and meticulously studying their mechanics. Director Peter Strickland has pulled from corpse of the Italian giallo a film that's best classified as a meta-giallo. Like Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzano's brilliant Amer, it's a deconstruction of the genre that's intimately focused on the texture of its predecessors. In the course of its examination it manages to question the assumptions and origins of many gialli at the expense of a traditional plot.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a shy, quiet man renowned for the exceptional sound work he's done on films produced in his native England. Berberian Sound Studio begins with his arrival in Italy. He's been conscripted to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, directed by Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), a man who believes his work transcends its origin as low-brow, low-budget horror. Gilderoy's mild-mannered personality is at odds with the brusque collection of Italian men working on the film, but he takes pride in his work and is determined to deliver a soundtrack as good as any he's ever created... even if he "didn't know it was going to be this kind of film."
While we see almost nothing of The Equestrian Vortex on screen, we're able to get a pretty good sense of its subject matter through the constant sound and voice-acting going on in the studio. As was custom in Italy at the time, the film (including dialogue) is completely dubbed after filming, so Gilderoy works in tandem with a parade of actors and actresses as they record their lines. Despite the fact that we never see the film, we're able to piece together fragments of its somewhat scatterbrained plot - something about a coven of witches inhabiting a horse farm. The only on-screen casualties are countless vegetables destroyed to create the sounds of bones breaking, hair pulled from the scalp, and necks being snapped. Letting the viewer's imagination do the work was a great decision, as it spares us from what could have been a shabby tongue-in-cheek rendition of a trashy old horror film. The dialogue and sound effects will immediately sound familiar to any Italian horror fans - they're the same kind of overblown low-fi aural tidbits you'd hear in an old Fulci film.
Yet, despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely within a sound studio, all the elements of the giallo are present. Gilderoy is the outsider protagonist, thrown into an unfamiliar and unsettling world. Santini and the local sound specialist Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) are somewhat sinister in a way that's hard to pin down. Their unbridled machismo and maltreatment of the female cast members turns them into villains of a sort. Through their interactions with the leading ladies, particularly Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) - the voice of the film's main character, Berberian Sound Studio introduces misogyny not dissimilar to that found in Italian horror in the same era. While the film doesn't kill the girls in lavish set-pieces, they're boxed away in recording booths, dismissed by the male technicians, and viewed as nothing but sex objects whose talent rests almost entirely on their ability to scream on command. We even get a pair of black leather gloves in the form of the projectionist Giovanni, who remains faceless throughout the film. While the photography is more modern than most gialli, the film carries some visual similarities and throwbacks to the genre. Characters are often saturated in primary colors, and the film plays with darkness and shadow as much as any horror film. When the power in the studio goes out unexpectedly, candles are lit as if for a seance while the crew snacks on the vegetables Gilderoy was planning on chopping up... Entirely mundane, but with undeniable overtones of witchcraft and cannibalism.
Gilderoy's reserved nature clashes with the film's violence, and he's forced to examine his complicity in the tasteless production. Like the modern giallo fan, he confronts the dilemma of being allured by the style of the film (particularly since he's lending his talents to its production) while being put off by the exploitative subject matter and casual misogyny. Gilderoy's paradox is that he's deeply in touch with the texture and sound of violence and sex, but remains withdrawn from any actual physical contact. As he struggles to retain some sense of his personality, he longs to return to the placid English countryside - the subject of the documentary film responsible for his reputation. He pores over letters from his mother describing a nest of baby birds. He's a sexless, impish figure thrown into a world of seething testosterone. Even when he becomes friends with Silvia, he's seemingly oblivious to her femininity, and asks only for her help in acquiring his missing travel reimbursement. The answer, of course, is to adopt the anger that comes so naturally to the native men. Gilderoy's transformation away from his repressed, queer nature is subtle, but he eventually succumbs.
As fascinating as this is, it doesn't make for a ton of on-screen action. Those expecting a plot similar to that of a classic giallo will probably be disappointed. There's no flashy violence, no lurid sex. The action is all internal, taking place within Gilderoy's mind. The frequent references gialli and Italian horror might not be enough to sustain newcomers to the genre, and I'd totally understand why. As a huge fan, I found all the sly references to be a lot of fun. Even so, there is a bit of plot drag in the middle act - aesthetics can only take a film so far.
But the aesthetics here are impeccable, particularly the sound work. (Which is essential for a film about sound work.) The soundtrack was composed and performed by indie group Broadcast, and as a fan of the band I was incredibly excited when I heard that they were involved with the film, particularly since it was the last project vocalist Trish Keenan worked on before her untimely death. The soundtrack is similar to the band's previous collaboration with experimental collage artists The Focus Group in that it consists of shorter compositions littered with sound effects and scraps of dialogue. The analogue synths of Broadcast are a perfect fit for the feel of the film, and the music plays an essential role in making the film feel haunted. There are callbacks to the soundtracks of the past in the frequent use of organ, harpsichord, and eerily distorted vocals.
Berberian Sound Studio may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely. Admittedly, it suffers from the same problem other aesthetic studies like Beyond the Black Rainbow in that it maintains a languid pace throughout and deemphasizes plot in favor of mood and tone. Regardless, it's an audiovisual feast, with enough meta-analysis of the giallo to remain engaging. I love that the giallo lives on in films like this, and that the buried psychosexual themes of older films have worked their way to the surface. It's almost as if the weirdness of the older gialli has taken center stage, and isn't that a good thing? Some of the best gialli seem to consider their plots as almost secondary to their artistic qualities. Berberian Sound Studio does the same, but very deliberately, and takes on the shape of something alluringly weird.