Sometimes the most fun thing to do during a film is to use your imagination, which Berberian Sound Studio encourages from its opening scene onward. After a brief sequence that recalls somewhat a certain style of giallo opening titles but mostly the work of Saul Bass, director Peter Strickland shows nothing else of the film-within-a-film being edited by Toby Jones’ put-upon sound engineer Gilderoy. We have a title, The Equestrian Vortex, and snatches of plot that emerge in the directions given to various voiceover performers within the booths at the titular BSS.
The director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) refuses to call it a giallo or even a horror film, which makes some sense since the described scenarios have more in common with the late supernatural films of Dario Argento than the world of slasher killings and fashion models populated by giallo. In a way, Santini might be breaking new ground, though at no point does Mancino’s performance bely any gravitas or craft behind his veneer of a lecherous poseur preying on the scream queens.
Santini’s predatory nature ends up undoing much of Gilderoy’s work via a late act of vengeance from an abused actress, a nuisance that scarcely seems to bother the engineer after weeks trapped in the studio. An earlier scene that sees the post-production crew enraptured by his ability to draw haunting, musical sounds from an assembly of flora and fauna casts Gilderoy in chiaroscuro lighting like something out of a Caravaggio painting; the sound guy as true artist, Renaissance man, a visually evocative hint at his carefully concealed inner life.
Why shield viewers from Santini’s film? Put simply, Strickland’s fascination lies behind the screen, in the craft that gives meaning to the moving image. As Gilderoy toils on with endless Foley work to create sound effects for knives hacking into bodies, chainsaws slicing through limbs, the work of principal photography remains liminal, ethereal, perhaps not real at all. The images we do see are repetitive, montages of dials and wheels producing the clicks and drones of a diegetic soundtrack. It’s old-school film fetishism of the most straightforward variety; as Gilderoy remains notably reserved, Strickland seems almost to forget about the human factor for several stretches.
For Gilderoy has no surname, no hobbies save for the lovingly captured scene of his vegetable music, no private thoughts save for the look of relief and escape that passes over his face when reading letters from home. The film’s one consistent plot thread, resolved a little over halfway through, concerns his attempts to receive reimbursement for a flight that no one at the production wants to deal with; eventually the airline denies that the flight ever took place, so how can Gilderoy even be at Berberian Sound Studio?
The film should not be understood but “experienced”, Strickland repeatedly insists in his commentary for this DVD release, which is a fine approach if the sensual offerings of the picture hold up to straightforward fetishizing. Unfortunately, while many film buffs and audiophiles can get behind Berberian Sound Studio’s fixation on analog production and the well-constructed scenes with voiceover artists, the well of pleasures runs dry after about half an hour of this relatively brief picture.
The plot runs out and begins to wind back again as the few traces of Gilderoy’s personality are absorbed by the production, a loop that eats itself in a climactic fade to white. Without any significant narrative drive, though, the loop only signifies that viewers will be shown minor variations on the first five or six scenes again. The conceit might have been better suited for a short.
“I didn’t think I’d be working on this kind of film,” Gilderoy mutters early on, a trace of unease infecting his work from the outset. Here’s the leitmotif, one which crops up repeatedly as he struggles to keep up with the grisly work: for instance, to keep a cabbage in place while stabbing it in synchronization with the murders onscreen. It’s just a vegetable, and yet…
Gilderoy’s projected hallucinations of himself as a horror villain who murders one of the film’s actresses seem to belong to a different picture than Strickland’s affably geeky cine-sthesia. They imply that Gilderoy conflates his own participation with the making of a violent horror film as being complicit in Santini’s own crimes against his actresses, an undercurrent that addresses serious and long-standing debates about the horror genre. That Strickland doesn’t delve too deeply or explicitly into this realm of inquiry is understandable, as such arguments are rather played out. But it’s a more interesting course for a feature film to take than the sort of one-note nostalgia displayed here, one that might have elevated his picture beyond the status of a curio.
Berberian Sound Studio comes to DVD in the US and Canada after a year on shelves in the UK with a smattering of features: the aforementioned commentary by Strickland, mumbly, unenlightening and only intermittently enthusiastic with an emphasis on the soundtrack by Broadcast; a behind the scenes documentary whose talking heads offer little beyond the typical murmurings of a good time had on set; an assortment of deleted scenes; and a brief documentary on Box Hill, England, whose footage is sampled for some of Gilderoy’s filmic hallucinations but otherwise illuminates little about the film.