To paraphrase former war leader and whisky fan Winston Churchill, writer/director Peter Strickland’s impressive second film Berberian Sound Studio is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – and the chances are a stiff drink will be appreciated after exposure to the wayward elements of this unsettling and masterful film.
Chronicling the dreamlike journey of the inexperienced and sheltered Gilderoy (the inscrutable Toby Jones), the film throws the mild-mannered sound engineer from Dorking, Surrey into the chaotic world of 1970s Italian giallo film production. Gilderoy is quickly confronted with one flamboyant character after another, as he struggles to come to terms with the language and exuberant personalities working on the post-production of witchcraft and murder film The Equestrian Vortex. Gradually Gilderoy begins to find the whole project genuinely unnerving, as the horror soundtrack of battered fruit and veg mixed with female screams starts to take its toll on his fragile psyche. The Englishman is left battling for his senses in the wildly intoxicating and claustrophobic world of the studio…
Berberian Sound Studio is undoubtedly informed by a deep love of giallo films and, even more evidently, a fannish devotion to the mystical and weird soundtracks concocted by the likes of Ennio Morricone and the band Goblin. What it is not however, is a film specifically about giallo. While it takes the post-production studio as its primary setting, the film is largely concerned with just what is going on in Gilderoy’s head. As hints become apparent that he may not be as normal as he first seems – and that his relationship with his mother especially appears somewhat troubled to say the least – the film’s focus on the 70s horror film processes is like an obsessive impulse, a slavish quirk of opportunity and a further clue to the central characters mental frailty.
In what is the film’s most stunning scene, a dreaming (we assume) Gilderoy is woken by scratching and hammering at his door. Woozily getting up to the strains of demonic organ music, he opens the door to find no one there but himself inside a movie theatre. Staring around in a profoundly agitated state, the picture of the cinema peels away from its cigarette marks, leaving a countryside scene of Box Hill in the Surrey countryside running, complete with BBC English voiceover – exactly the sort of nature documentary Gilderoy is attuned to working on. As a cinematic tour de force it is an incredibly effective visual realization of the intensity of the character’s internal conflicts; and for its audacious deployment Strickland deserves full praise.
A haunting piece that manages to mix enough humour, scares and philosophical questions into its 94 minutes than most do with nearly double that length, Berberian Sound Studio is a film to savour.