The follow up to British director Peter Strickland’s impressive rape/revenge film Katalin Varga encompasses an interesting subject matter. A film set almost entirely in the confounds of a sound studio it follows a British middle aged mummy’s boy (Toby Jones) who ventures abroad to Italy, to work on the sound of a post production film. What transpires is a living hell of Lynchian and Kafkaesque scenarios as we watch the deterioration of a man’s mind.
Peter Strickland: ‘I was always fascinated by how sound confounds us.’
More than anything else Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to 1970’s Italian Giallo. Not by mimicking it but by deconstructing the motifs of the Giallo genre through one of its most important components; sound. This shows in a way a link to other prominent art house films: Antonioni’s Blow Up in its manipulation of images and Coppolla’s The Conversation in the misinformation of what we hear.
The film will not be to everyone’s cup of tea, as it is extremely art-house, but there is still much to admire even amongst the most philistine; the elaborate interior set design and experiments with sound being something you can take away with you as a positive. Some might complain that the film is all style over substance and there would be an element of truth to this. Style plays a very major part yet the Dark Knight Rises has been lauded as a work of genius, but it is void of any substance.
The film follows Gilderoy (Toby Jones) a timid pushover who is an expert at his job. Closed off from the rest of the outside world and intimidated and tormented by his Italian colleagues, Gilderoy’s tenure as a sound engineer on a low rent Giallo closely resembles that of a prison. This is a supreme culture clash as Gilderoy who is apologetically British has to adapt to life in the Italian workplace. The Latin sensibilities of the producer (Cosimo Fusco) and director’s (Antonio Mancino) is constantly at odds with Gilderoy’s apprehensiveness and they show utter ambivalence to the violence that is unfolding on the screen. Thus Gilderoy’s story turns uncontrollably into one of rampant homesickness; an Englishman in an alien place.
We do not get to see any footage of The Equestrian Vortex; the Giallo Gilderoy is working on though we do get to hear a lot of the sounds. Spliced up vegetables and actresses coming in to do screaming duties is most of what we get to imagine the horrors Gilderoy has to endure watching. There is also a running narration of the storyline, (with nods to Argento and Bava) which is clearly the misogynistic played out fantasies of director. This involves ridiculous scenes of occult curses, sexed up goblins and some grotesquely inventive violence such as witches being persecuted with red hot pokers to the genitalia, delivered in a blackly deadpan way. That these come from the mind of the director just goes to show how far minds have been deteriorated, like the vegetables that have been murdered.
Some Frightfesters were concerned about whether this movie falls under the category of horror being that there is no such shocks, murder, blood or bogeymen prototypes. The horror is truly psychological however in a David Lynch sort of way. Gilderoy’s horror is the claustrophobic prison of his predicament. Working in a nightmare environment he has never worked on a ‘horror’ before; his co-workers and boss intimidate, bully and are constantly hostile. Bullied by a tyrannical producer, seemingly sexually harassed by the director and the secretary (played by stunning new bond girl Tonia Sotiropoulou) is deliberately evasive when it comes to reimbursing his flight ticket; his experiences would warrant anyone to start pulling their hair out.
As I will reiterate, this is a homage to Italian Giallo. So when somewhere during the course of the film Toby Jones starts speaking in Italian, for those of us who have seen Giallo’s such as Deep Red, where the film shifts from English to Italian, we are able to understand the frustration of this. There is also a scene where legendary British scream queen Suzy Kendall enters the studio, solely to do her bid of screaming; executing her vocal chords with the professionalism of an opera singer. This too is a knowing homage for any Giallo fan boy who will see the movie. Berberian Sound Studio is able to shift at ease from humour to the ludicrous and then to the bizarre whilst maintaining the decorum of its surroundings. An expertly realised idea, shows that. Strickland is definitely one for the future.
VERDICT: B+ Berberian Sound Studio IS OUT FROM TOMORROW