Berberian Sound Studio – Review.
UK, 2012 / Cert 15 / 92 mins
Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Toby Jones, Tonia Sotiropoulou
Following on from his 2009 debut, the rape revenge drama Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s second directorial feature, Berberian Sound Studio has been receiving much critical acclaim of late. After its success at FrightFest 2012, where it won three prizes in the Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor categories, it has recently been announced that the film has received seven nominations for this year’s British Independent Film Awards. The recognition this remarkable, and unsettlingly weird psychological thriller has attracted is well deserved.
Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s homage to the outrageous blood and sex fuelled “giallo” cinema made in Italy during the 1970s, concerns the mental disintegration of an introverted, but gifted, Home Counties film sound engineer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones). Gilderoy, whose mental breakdown is related in a skilfully understated performance by Jones, has moved to Italy to work on an explicit and sadistic horror film, “The Equestrian Vortex”. Strickland shows us the lurid and stylish opening credits to this fictional exploitative shocker at the beginning of the film, an ingenious way of introducing Berberian Sound Studio’s meta-cinematic- “film-within-a-film”- theme. However, this is the only time we glimpse “The Equestrian Vortex”, whose explicit horrors are related to us via snatches of narrative, and through the grisly sound production that Gilderoy has to recreate within the claustrophobic Berberian sound studio.
Gilderoy gets to work, recording the various effects used to recreate the sounds of murder and mutilation, overdubbing the dialogue and screams of tortured nuns. Most memorably, we see the recording of the atavistic demonical jabbering of a character, wonderfully described as a ‘dangerously aroused goblin’ in “The Equestrian Vortex”’s script. Strickland shows the recording process in close detail throughout, emphasising Berberian Sound Studio’s fascination with the entire filmmaking process. A watermelon is hurled to the studio floor, violently splitting open to recreate the sound of someone leaping to their death and, at one point, Gilderoy tears radishes apart to suggest the sound of a witch having her hair torn out at the roots. Most sickeningly, the sound of sizzling oil in a saucepan becomes the aural representation of a red hot poker being inserted into a nun’s vagina.
Suggestions of sexual, physical, and mental abuse permeate the entire film, personified in the characters of the bullying producer, the suave Francesco Corragio (Cosimo Fusco), and the shadowy figure of the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). There are insinuations of sexual harassment made against the director, who uses his power to intimidate Gilderoy, threatening him when he says he wants to be relieved of his duties. When Gilderoy complains to the director that he is not familiar with working within the horror genre, Santini takes issue with the sound recordist, remarkably claiming that his film ‘is not a horror film, it is real life’.
As the filmmakers force the performers into increasing physical and mental extremes in order to realistically recreate the terror that is depicted on the screen, the fictional narrative of “The Equestrian Vortex” and the diegesis of Berberian Sound Studio begin to horribly overlap. In a disturbing evocation of life imitating art, the boundaries between the fictional torture- and the real torture of the coerced actresses- becomes increasingly blurred. Even Gilderoy willingly participates in the cruelty, his sense of self-identity slowly diminishing under the malignant influence of his environment. As his loneliness and isolation increase, Gilderoy becomes more and more appalled by the task of viciously stabbing and pummelling various foodstuffs in order to recreate the visual depravity, becoming so desensitised by the violence that surrounds him that he is transformed from victim to bully, cranking up the feedback volume in the headphones of one actress in order to distress her sufficiently to solicit a more realistic performance.
As Gilderoy’s crisis of identity becomes increasingly disquieting, Strickland refuses to resort to standard horror film devices to pile on the terror, choosing to heighten Berberian Sound Studio’s palpable sense of paranoia gradually. Initially at least, Gilderoy is transported into a Kafkaesque business environment, where locating expenses cheques becomes a hopeless task, as he in inexplicably moved from department to department, never quite reaching a satisfactory conclusion to his reasonable request for his airfare. From this darkly comic beginning, a subtle and sensual feeling of dread slowly gains momentum, emphasised by the film’s mise en scène and cinematography. Outside the sound studio, the long office corridors resemble the clinical environment of a mental institution, an image complemented by the sound of the recorded screams which persistently echo through the whitewashed walls. All of this is contrasted with the dark, hermetically sealed interior of the studio itself, where the extended use of subjective close-ups add to the sense of claustrophobia, and a number of striking match cuts instil in the viewer a fractured and disjointed sense of time, placing the audience’s perception within Gilderoy’s disturbed state of mind.
Credit must also be given to the film’s sound department, whose brilliant employment of a variety of synth effects and utilisation of heavy and discordant electronic reverberated sound, add to the film’s overall sense of discomfort. It is notable that the BIFA awards have recognised the efforts of the film’s sound editor and recordist, Joakim Sundström and Stevie Haywood, by nominating the pair in the Best Technical Achievement category for their sound design on Beberian Sound Studio.
Taking into consideration its engagement with cinematic processes, critics have sought to compare Berberian Sound Studio with other films that take filmmaking as a central theme, including Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) or even Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). However, the film it perhaps comes closest to in this regard is Peeping Tom (1960), Michael Powell’s sadistic depiction of a serial killer who films his victims at the moment of death. Like Peeping Tom, Berberian Sound Studio starkly highlights film’s exploitative and corrupting ability to transform all of us into voyeurs, and its self-reflexivity calls into question the validity of the cinematic reconstruction of reality. With its postmodern take on the nature of reality, the ambiguity of Berberian Sound Studio’s narrative also comes across at times like a Lynchian bad acid trip, and includes a number of thematic and stylistic nods to Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive in particular. There are also several instantly recognisable formal and thematic echoes of Hitchcock within the film’s taut psychological narrative.
On one level, Berberian Sound Studio is another example of the British horror genre’s delight in tormenting an innocent character by placing them within a threatening location. Gilderoy, like Edward Woodward or Donald Sutherland, becomes yet another hapless Brit, struggling to make sense of their alien environment. Berberian Sound Studio is like a secular Wicker Man without the singing and dancing, or a cold and unemotional Don’t Look Now without the metaphysical baggage. However, despite all of its intertextual referentiality, Strickland’s film, with its synthesis of sound and visual extremes, seems entirely original. Is Gilderoy’s paranoid nightmare merely the result of a mental breakdown? Or are there more malevolent and sinister forces at work here? The enigmatic Berberian Sound Studio provides little in the way of answers, but the film’s power lies within its dark and disturbing perplexities.