A film all about sound and set in one very claustrophobic location could be a disaster but Peter Strickland and the extremely talented Toby Jones ensure this is a riveting experience.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a documentary sound engineer who has just been employed by an Italian horror film studio to record the voices and design the foley for the upcoming exploitation film The Equestrian Vortex. Upon his arrival he is received by a hostile beautiful receptionist (Tonia Sotiropoulou) which immediately sets the tone for Gilderoy’s whole bizarre experience. Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and director Santini (Antonio Mancino) are slightly more welcoming but continue to converse in Italian as Gilderoy tries to comprehend why he was hired. He starts to work straight away, recreating the sounds of violence for the film by mashing marrows and tearing radishes, recording the screams of actresses confined in a sound booth and attempting to understand the film he is involved in. But as Gilderoy becomes more engrossed in his work in the isolated Berberian Sound Studio, reality and fiction collide.
Set in the 1970s, the film is full of close ups and lingering shots of the equipment of the era and precise notes inform audiences of the methodologies of the sound engineer. Other than the graphic black and red credits for The Equestrian Vortex we never catch even a glimpse of the violent film, only experiencing it through the sound effects and dialogue that Gilderoy must create. The whole film takes place in the Berberian Sound Studio, itself a vast and uninviting environment which lends itself as a metaphor for the human psyche and its susceptible nature; if you let the savagery in, it will take over.
This is indeed a film about filmmaking but it is also about fear and the human psyche. What follows after Gilderoy’s immersion is ambiguous and links have been rightly made to the work of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). It is also about horror and how the genre is exploitative, with many a reference to the Italian ‘giallo’ films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci to name a couple.
Cabbages are submerged in water replicating the sound of drowning bodies and extreme close ups of the fresh vegetables are juxtaposed with the decomposing offerings that have already served their purpose. Considering this is all about sound, Strickland cleverly employs visuals to add layers to the already multifaceted story. Toby Jones is perfect as the naïve and unassertive Gilderoy, his facial expressions depicting a multitude of emotions and his physicality used to great effect.
We are treated to glimpses of Gilderoy’s home life through the letters his mother writes to him talking of a pleasant life and we see an extract from one of the documentaries that Gilderoy had worked on. This scene depicting lush green pastures, babbling brooks and beautiful idyllic England contrasts with the suffocating studio and the gruesome actions occurring within The Equestrian Vortex, illustrating how much Gilderoy is out of his depth. The fact that we never see the film allows our imaginations to run wild, and also ensures we really understand the film from the perspective of the sound man.
The film is also full of fascinating characters other than Gilderoy, from the arrogant Francesco, the various actresses who are exploited by the filmmakers in one way or another to Massimo and Massimo, the two talented sound technicians, who provide a lot of the humour in the film. Full of Italian stereotypes, we begin to wonder if this is all just how Home Counties Gilderoy views them or if they are references to other giallo films.
Strickland is incredibly brave to make a film all about sound and it feels all the more important as it depicts a bygone age in filmmaking. Perhaps a comment on film spectatorship and how the horror genre elicits psychological effects or perhaps just a love letter to film and methods that have died out. Berberian Sound Studio is left open to interpretation and be about what you want it to be about.
This is one of the most interesting and original films you will see this year. Perhaps familiarise yourself with a bit of Argento before you see it so that you can truly appreciate the references but even without I believe this film can still be enjoyed. It is so cleverly constructed and features the magnificent lead role that Toby Jones was born for. A brilliant British meta-film with humour, depth and plenty of vegetables!
Director: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Stars: Tonia Sotiropoulou, Toby Jones and Susanna Cappellaro
Runtime: 92 mins