That Peter Strickland Feeling

Indy Datta reviews Berberian Sound Studio

On paper, Peter Strickland’s second feature looks like a departure from his first, Katalin Varga,  which he made on a shoestring budget funded by a family inheritance, after a lifetime of being ignored by the film business. Where Katalin Varga roamed the mountains and villages of Transylvania to tell the story of its title character’s quest for revenge against the man who once raped her, Berberian Sound Studio takes place entirely within the confines of the titular (and fictional) Italian studio, where Toby Jones’s sheltered British sound effects man Gilderoy has arrived in the 70’s to work on a lurid (and, sadly, fictional) giallo movie, The Equestrian Vortex. But what is striking, in the end, is how clearly the two films share the same voice, and how distinctive that voice is.

Berberian Sound Studio, like its predecessor, is somewhere between a genre picture and a deconstruction of its genre. While, in the end, Strickland’s main interest in the revenge thriller plot of Katalin Varga appeared to be in the ways in which he could subvert it, he remained committed to the film’s visceral atmospheric effects (Varga’s combination of foreboding landscape tableaux and unsettling electronic music looks in retrospect like an influence on Ben Wheatley’s Kill List). Similarly, in Berberian Sound Studio, he simultaneously places his narrative within the world of horror movies, keeps the most lurid horror elements  at arm’s length (in an unseen film within the film), appears to critique (if not outright mock) the aesthetics and ethics of horror, and  attempts to deliver legitimate scares. There’s an element of trying to have it all ways up here, but this also feels like a very uncalculated and personal film, and its sincerity is ultimately disarming.

And for the first half, at least, it’s funny.  Gilderoy, as portrayed by Toby Jones, is the kind of man who would be a fish out of water anywhere other than the Dorking garden shed he uses as a home studio (where he does the sound for anodyne local natural history documentaries). Arriving at Berberian  – probably the first time he’s ever left the home counties, let alone England – he’s immediately way out of his depth, bullied and patronised by everybody from Santini (played by Antonio Mancino, he’s the sleazebag director of The Equestrian Vortex, which we see nothing of beyond a lovingly crafted pastiche title sequence) to the Bond –girl-glamorous receptionist (Tonia Sotiropolou, actual future Bond girl). It soon becomes obvious that The Equestrian Vortex is exploitative trash (although Santini pompously declares that his aim is to expose the brutal truth of reality), of a kind that Gilderoy hasn’t come across before, and after some time spent recording the screams of actresses (and the voices of subsidiary characters such as “a dangerously aroused goblin”), and the foley effects for the myriad, unseen, grotesque physical violations visited upon the giallo’s female characters, the work starts to take a surprising psychic toll on Gilderoy, and his ensuing, somewhat Lynchian, somewhat Barton Finkeseque, crackup spins Berberian Sound Studio off in a new direction.

It’s tempting to see Gilderoy as a proxy for Strickland himself – both Berberian Sound Studio and Katalin Varga are films in which more care has probably been lavished on sound design than on any other element – the dense but apparently realistic soundscapes of Varga evidently deriving from the same sensibility as the more changeable use of sound in Berberian, in which the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic music and sound are playfully blurred,  Strickland is an avowed sound geek, and avant-garde musician*, and the vintage analogue recording and mixing equipment shown in the film is heavily fetishised throughout. To imagine the director as Gilderoy ultimately feels inaccurate and reductive, but the film is full of more interesting symbolic proxies, both within the story (the intricate diagrams Gilderoy draws on paper to plan his sound mixes; the vegetables that are hacked to pieces, ripped in half and splattered on the floor for foley effects in place of human flesh) and in the structure of the telling of it (the way we never see The Equestrian Vortex, but grow familiar with it through the bits of vocal performance we see, and through Santini’s humbug-packed justifications  of his art). There’s a whole image system in play here, subliminally, based on the idea of things standing in for other things.

And the emotion that drives the film is, it seems to me, derived from the idea that there must be something destructive about this – an anxiety about authenticity that finds expression in Gilderoy’s discomfort with every aspect of his work in the studio (a fake movie studio constructed within a real movie studio), to the point where, when he buries his misgivings and resigns himself to following orders, his voice becomes dubbed into Italian –  a key element of his identity is sacrificed to the formal scheme of the film. Is it selling out that’s the danger? Or is there something inherently dangerous in the nature of movies? Berberian Sound Studio is not the kind of film to explicitly pose questions, let alone give answers – like a David Lynch movie (and Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead and Lost Highway are all evoked here) it’s more a collection of effects than an argument. But if you give it a chance, it might get under your skin.

*Strickland’s own band and many of his friends contribute music to the soundtrack, as they did with Katalin Varga. The film’s original score is by Broadcast, and the film is dedicated to Broadcast’s Trish Keenan, who died last year.

Berberian Sound Studio is on general release today, and also available on Curzon on Demand.

6 thoughts on “That Peter Strickland Feeling

  1. Is there any reference to Cathy Berberian in the film or any of her music on the soundtrack? Given the subject matter of the film, surely the name must be a shout-out at least?

  2. “(where he does the sound for anodyne local natural history documentaries)”

    I thought, when the documentary does break out onto the screen, it was supposed to have a genuine pastoral beauty about it – although it’s still teased. And as write that, I realise that, for me, Gilderoy’s sense of the idyll he’d left behind was perhaps more successfully evoked than… well, whatever it is he’s pulled into. So my favorite moments were when the barriers came down between the two and one leaked into the other.

  3. Best review/analysis of this film that I’ve read so far. This apparent anxiety about authenticity on Mr. Strickland’s part in BSS is similar to the motivating ironies behind BS Johnson’s writing. Mr. Strickland has inherited some of Mr. Johnson’s agonising over the artistic mediation of the ‘truth’ along with, unfortunately, some of his shortcomings in technique. The film attempts to demonstrate this unease about the representation of reality through sound and image yet implies only a superficial Haneke-style moralising about the problem. What it lacks is a sense of the transgressive attractions of the compulsion to make film which override the moral misgivings, meaning that one has to ask why Mr. Strickland makes films at all? He is a genuine talent though and may address this absence in the future.
    My favourite part of the film was a rostrum camera shot (?) of a black and white photograph of a, (presumably Gilderoy’s) garden shed, made sinister by the oppressive electronic dissonance of the soundtrack. What I really wanted to know, just a hint would have been enough, was what else kept Gilderoy tinkering away in his little shed? It can’t just have been the anaesthetising whirr of the tape reels on the workbench and comforting twitter of chiffchaffs in the nest, can it?

    1. >>What it lacks is a sense of the transgressive attractions of the compulsion to make film which override the moral misgivings

      I was just about to agree with this, but it’s there, I think. There is the sense of Gilderoy’s ostensible asexuality actually disguising a sense of sexual repression, which leaks out in the acts of sadism he initially only mimics, but later perpetrates. There is a sense of the film as the environment that lets this happen, as well as the Italy/Dorking contrast and the fact that, probably for the first time in his life, Gilderoy is surrounded by beautiful women. It’s tempting to draw a connection to the officially irrelevant fact that Toby Jones’s other big role this year is as Hitchcock.

      1. True, but I think that’s a kind of interpretative imposition based on Gilderoy as a certain stereotype, rather than due to any clues offered by the film itself. The scant, colourless detail offered about his life in Dorking doesn’t necessarily support a diagnosis of sexual repression and also leaves the film open to the rather worrying reading that he is an innocent corrupted.
        Do you mean that he begins the film as a technician and ends it as an artist, or at least on the brink of such a transition? If that is the case and his corruption is the cause, we are back to the problem of the film’s moral anxiety. If the right thing to do is to disengage from ‘The Equestrian Vortex’ then why doesn’t he? The obvious answer is that he is effectively bullied into staying which would mean he is indeed still a technician at the end. If he has been utterly corrupted then there really is a simplistic morality at work in the film. The only satisfying answer is, as you imply, that his experience has brought forth something which was up to now hidden in an English garden shed. The problem for me is that there isn’t the creative will behind ‘BSS’ to examine the complexities of an ostensibly quiet life. It prefers instead to play around with the crude symbolism of misogynistic horror films and extravagantly stereotypical Italians, when I think it would have been much more interesting if the film had been set in Dorking.

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