Berberian Sound Studio addresses two clichés of filmmaking: 1) the idea that sound design greatly enhances a horror film’s effectiveness, and 2) Truffaut’s famous statement that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because visual depictions of combat inevitably glamorize it. By riffing on the former, writer-director Peter Strickland finds an ingenious solution to the latter. (OK, the subject is eroticized violence, not war, but the principle is the same.)
In 1976, a timid English sound engineer named Gilderoy (Toby Jones, terrific as always) arrives in Italy to help complete post-production for a low-budget horror film called Il Vortice Equestre (The Equestrian Vortex). (Italian filmmakers at that time typically shot MOS and recorded all sound in post, including the dialogue of the international cast, which was often dubbed by different actors.) Accustomed to working on pastoral nature documentaries, Gilderoy is shocked by the sadistic scenes he must help bring to life. He is also troubled by the volatile, intricate politics of the production team, and the arousal of his own repressed urges by the psychosexual material of the film and the presence of several beautiful women in the studio. Complications that start off slightly comic, like the hapless Gilderoy’s inability to obtain reimbursement for his flight, spiral into ominous conspiracies. As madness encroaches, we experience his unraveling not as a narrative so much as an accumulation of feverish sounds and images. Rather than advance a plot, the scenes shuffle and reinterpret what we’ve already seen (and heard).
Although it shares some stylistic affinities with the type of film the fictional crew is working on, Berberian Sound Studio has none of the Grand Guignol excesses of Argento or Bava. This is by design: in Strickland’s most inspired stroke, he shows nothing of the film-within-a-film (apart from a spot-on title sequence). It’s deeply unnerving to hear the sounds of bodies being burnt, hacked, and splattered without the accompanying images, even as we see that the effects are being made with cabbages, watermelons, and radishes. This approach subverts the voyeuristic gaze and forces the audience to contemplate the historical, cultural, sexual, and religious underpinnings of film violence from a fresh perspective. That said, the film demonstrates affection for the Italian horror and giallo it uses as a vehicle for its critique. It conveys the maddening level of detail that goes into simplest, cheapest, most disreputable films. Instead of bodies, Strickland’s imagery fetishizes the accoutrements of the trade, lingering over mixing boards, cue sheets, and boxes of magnetic tape, not to mention all those brutalized fruits and vegetables moldering in waste bins.
All this is not quite enough to sustain Berberian Sound Studio for feature length (Strickland developed it from a short subject). But if the film moves too slowly for its own good and relies a little heavily on atmosphere, it does set a uniquely tense mood, which lingers long afterward. It wouldn’t work if it didn’t sound amazing, which it does, thanks to a sound department led by Joakim Sundström and Stevie Haywood. The crew has succeeded in depicting brilliant sound work within a film that has another layer of brilliant sound work. A key component of this is the music by Broadcast (featuring the late Trish Keenan), which draws on giallo soundtracks by the likes of Goblin, replete with Melltrons, analog synths, and echoey, wordless vocals. Strickland approached the group to score Il Vortice Equestre but ultimately hired them to do the full soundtrack for Berberian Sound Studio. It was the right decision for a film in which fiction gradually becomes inextricable from reality.