Berberian Sound Studio isn’t a horror movie exactly. Like a deconstructionist chef, writer/director Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga) has taken an old favorite recipe, broken it down to its essential ingredients and then re-presented it in a fresh and unexpected way. The result is a unique psychological thriller that has an impact similar to a horror film but which slyly denies one key component: the violence.
When we first meet Gilderoy played by Toby Jones, he’s a non-descript man clomping wearily down a non-descript hall, weighed down by the world and the suitcases in either hand. He approaches a beautiful receptionist and is dismissed at a glance with the almost hostile indifference practiced by beautiful receptionists everywhere and experienced by invisible men like him daily. He’s an English sound engineer come to Italy to work on a horror film and for him the horror is just beginning.
Italian films, horror or otherwise, are (or were) often filmed without a soundtrack and every sound and every line of dialogue is recorded later in a sound studio. That’s Gilderoy’s job. He works with the actors voicing their lines and he works with the Foley artists recreating every sound from footsteps to stabbings while the scenes loop in front of them. Gilderoy is good at what he does, but he’s a passive, reserved, sensitive soul (at one point he drops a spider out the window rather than smash it). He’s used to working on nature documentaries, not lurid, violent Giallo. The overheated violence of the film he’s working on (something about witches) is magnified by the stress of culture shock. He’s a guy who’d rather be at home with a spot of tea and a good book but he’s surrounded by bullies whose language he doesn’t understand and who view his politeness as weakness. It all takes a toll on him and Gilderoy slowly and quietly begins to lose it.
What’s interesting is we never see the violence that Gilderoy is immersed in. We only hear the screams of the victims, the pulse of the score and the squelches of the onscreen stabbings and torture recreated by the mashing of assorted fruits and vegetables. It’s a curious, surreal effect that only seems to heighten the tension as it blurs the line between reality and artistry. The audience meanwhile is made so completely conscious of the illusions of a film that eventually the sound of “real” footsteps or the ticking of a clock start to seem as artificial as those in the film-within-a-film. The boundaries separating the real from the cinematic begin to break down for the audience which is exactly what’s happening to Gilderoy in the film.
David Lynch, a man who understands a thing or two about unsettling sound design, would be right at home in the hermetic environment of off-kilter dread and unease that Strickland has created on screen. On close examination, little out of the ordinary happens yet after a while every action and reaction begins to seem sinister and unnerving as we’re taken down the path to madness right along with the Gilderoy himself.
As the sad sack Gilderoy, Toby Jones is terrific and it’s great to see an entire film given over to him. His whole backstory is written on his face and in his gestures and you can feel his frustration and disorientation to the extent that it begins to feel claustrophobic. You don’t like Gilderoy exactly, but you recognize him either in yourself or in people you know.
Wrapped up as it is in the minute details of old school filmmaking, Berberian Sound Studio is both an affectionate nod to the power of cinema and maybe a bit of reflection upon its potentially corrosive effects. At the same time, Strickland offers more proof that nothing on screen is ever as disturbing as what you create in your own mind.
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