Berberian Sound Studio came out in 2012 and slipped by without a trace, sinking wordlessly into a thousand Netflix queues, never to see the light of day. This is the part here where I try and convince you to dig it up and put your ears and eyes all over it, because it’s fucking worth watching and thinking about, yeah?
Okay, so this is a film about a timid sound engineer who travels to Italy to engineer the audio of a gruesome horror movie – probably sometime in the mid-seventies, though it’s never stated specifically. The fantastic Toby Jones plays our shy protagonist, Gilderoy, an innocent little creature so gentle that he habitually transports spiders out the window rather than squashing them. He mumbles and demurs throughout, flinching whenever he makes eye contact with the brash and swaggering hyper-masculine Italian movie-makers who’ve brought him in to class up their slasher. We see nothing of the horror movie in question; the film is restricted entirely to the world of the sound studio, where the delicate and increasingly frayed Gilderoy reluctantly brings to life the gruesome reality of the movie. The movie in question, The Equestrian Vortex, seems to consist entirely of misogynistic torture and brutality. As the film goes on, the producers and directors of the horror movie grow increasingly abrasive and abusive towards their actresses and characters alike, and the thin wall between reality and fiction begins to dissolve.
So, the first thing you need to know about Berberian Sound Studio is that it is largely a film of mood. Much like the 1970’s Italian slasher movies (known colloquially as giallo films) it concerns, Peter Strickland’s film is largely a construction of mood. Logic and horror ebb and flow in relation to one another. The further we are drawn into the abyss, the less sense it makes. Reason gives way to fear. As with any film dependent on mood, Berberian Sound Studio is a film which must be engaged fully to be appreciated. If you watching it with a bowl of popcorn and a bunch of cackling friends, you’re probably going to be bored stiff. This isn’t Evil Dead we’re talking about here, Eraserhead would be a closer comparison. Though not as suffocating a vision as Lynch’s, this is a lonely and claustrophobic film that must be watched alone, in darkness and in silence. Given that restriction, it functions perfectly. The confines of the sound studio seems to crush in on us. The unrelenting choruses of screams claw at our minds, as if fighting to burrow their way inside. The piles of fruit and vegetation hacked up to approximate the sounds of human flesh begin to rot, and seem almost to come alive. Watching this film is an experience not unlike drowning, struggling for the surface and watching it get further and further away. By the time we reach the third act of the film, and the reality of the story begins to dissolve, it seems only right that things spin out of control as they do.
A few things to note. First off, the soundtrack provided by the lovely English band Broadcast is perfect, worming its way down your spine like a cold finger. The audio is – as one would hope given the subject matter – immaculate. Even seeing how it’s all put together one cannot but help be put under its grisly spell. I suppose it might help if you’ve seen a few giallo films, if only as a reference point. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is probably the most compelling example of the form. And I should mention that this isn’t the sort of film you should watch if you’re the sort who needs a concrete ending. Berberian Sound Studio goes out on a deeply ambiguous note, raising lots of questions and answering none. I for one found it satisfying, if in a disquieting sort of way.
I recommend the film highly, though obviously not to everybody. This is a strange and singular experience, not an altogether pleasant one. Check it out.