Not since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive has there been a film as downright weird as Peter Strickland’s pseudo-horror film, Berberian Sound Studio. Paying homage to 70s Italian cinema, specifically the sleazy “giallo” genre (a hybrid of horror and eroticism), Strickland’s goal is to exploit the exploiters by taking a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look into the inner workings of one of these studios during the post-production phase. Because giallo movies were known for their exquisite use of sound, Berberian Sound Studio’s focal point is the primary sound engineer, in this case an English man named Gilderoy, played with meek naiveté by the stellar Toby Jones. Strickland’s horror-drama functions as a sensory pleasure, a love letter to film sound and the foley artists/engineers who create them, and an exposition of the on-set misogyny that remained unchallenged during this period. Berberian Sound Studio is also one of the few films of late that can be described as “meta.” It is self-referential in makeup and by the end all but acknowledges its “film within a film” transformation. While it threatens to lose much of its audience by the time it cuts to black, Berberian Sound Studio is a sonic pleasure that’s intriguing and different enough to confidently recommend.
Entering the Berberian Sound Studio for the first time, sound engineer Gilderoy expects a warm reception and an equally delightful working environment. Little does he know that he’s about to walk into a dark prison of sorts, filled with egos, a lecherous film crew, and brutal on-screen imagery that destroys his appreciation for the art of filmmaking. The beautiful secretary who greets Gilderoy (Tonia Sotiropoulou) is unreceptive to his concerns about his flight reimbursement. She’s bored and can’t be bothered to do her job. When Gilderoy enters the recording studio itself, sound is amplified to an ear-shattering degree as the foley artists hack apart lettuce and other unused vegetables to create a sound that reflects the gruesome killing of women in the giallo motion picture. For Gilderoy, a sound engineer who worked exclusively on documentaries, this life-imitating-art method of recording sound is deeply unsettling.
Gilderoy also has a sexist, power-tripping producer (Cosimo Fusco) breathing down his neck, keeping a vulturous eye on him in the hopes that Gilderoy’s facade of professionalism will buckle under pressure. The “great” director Santini (Antonio Mancino), who initially requested Gilderoy’s assistance, remains invisible throughout much of the film. When finally revealed, we learn he’s little more than a proxy for the studio to flaunt. Santini is more interested in boozing and bedding than he is in filmmaking, entirely at the mercy of the producer, Claudio, and his demands for absolute perfection.
Whatever mental beat-downs Gilderoy and Santini endure are nothing compared to the cruelty inflicted upon the actresses involved in the film project. When voice performer Silvia (Fatma Hohamed) records a looping track that requires her to scream like a witch burning to her death, she’s chastised for her lack of commitment. Claudio ends the entire session and berates her viciously in front of Gilderoy and the staff. Soon after, as if responding to a life-or-death situation, Silvia delivers one of the finest-captured movie wails in all of film…but at what cost? Strickland’s liberal use of noise amplification is powerful and transcendental. All our senses are attuned to this scream; a close-up of Silvia’s agape mouth and terrified eyes only stresses the point further. But we are left feeling uncomfortable, as if we ourselves are accomplices to this act of submission by force. All I could think was: So this is how Shelley Duvall must have felt after Stanley Kubrick shouted ‘cut’ after The Shining’s infamous 127th take. Strickland peels back the layer of lies while diving deep into film history. Many of these scream queens in horror films weren’t just sticking to the essence of the script — they were genuinely terrified by their director or producer, who instilled fear into them as a means to a profitable end.
Although Berberian Sound Studio sniffs out the hierarchical structure and nauseous amounts of misogyny hidden in many giallo productions, there’s no doubt that similar in-studio practices were replicated all across the world. Gilderoy’s own descent into madness, and gradual acceptance of this salacious and twisted way to construct film, proves the English could be just as morally corrupt as the Italians. I have to believe it wasn’t accidental that Toby Jones — a proven Alfred Hitchcock lookalike in HBO’s The Girls — was cast as Gilderoy, a man who undergoes many of the same mental breakdowns as the antiheroes that litter numerous Hitchcock films. Without spoiling anything or attempting to figure out the bizarre, Lynchian path the narrative travels on, I will say that my praise isn’t without reservation. Berberian Sound Studio has a beginning and a middle, but good luck trying to make sense of an ending…if there even is one. It’s one thing for a film to pull the rug out from under you intelligibly, but Berberian Sound Studios nullifies its own greatness by abruptly stopping just when things become fabulously dark and twisted. Nevertheless, Peter Strickland’s sophomore effort is detailed to the max, rich in ambiance and noisily spectacular. U.K. band Broadcast imbue their ear for electronic music into the warped milieu of Berberian Sound Studio, creating a one-of-a-kind score that is both organic and hypnotic. Berberian Sound Studio isn’t an easy digest, but its presentation has “cult classic” written all over it. I suggest you all be one of the first explorers of what’s sure to be an undervalued gem from 2013.
IFC Midnight’s Berberian Sound Studio hits theaters today, June 14th, and is also available on VOD format. The film is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York; in Los Angeles you can see it at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and the Downtown Independent Theatre in Downtown LA. Be sure to check out the trailer below as well: