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.