As film production and exhibition rapidly embraces digital technologies, more and more contemporary films are paying homage to earlier modes of production when films were shot and screened on film. Hugo, The Artist, Holy Motors, Argo and Frankenweenie are some of the recent films that have in their own way acknowledged the power of cinema from different eras. Now Berberian Sound Studio pays tribute to analogue sound recording and giallo films; the wonderfully pulpy Italian crime thriller and horror films that were most prolific during the 1970s. The second feature by British writer/director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio is named after the film’s setting: a fictional Italian post-production studio doing the post-synched audio recording for a particularly nasty 1976 giallo film titled The Equestrian Vortex. For reasons never fully explained, the studio hires Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild mannered sound engineer from England, to work on the elaborate sound mix. Used to working on pleasant documentaries about the English countryside and writing letters to his mother, Gilderoy struggles to cope with the aggressive behaviour of his Italian co-workers and the gruesome content of the film.
Strickland ensures that the audience never see any of The Equestrian Vortex, aside from its psychedelic title sequence. Instead the audience hear the scenes being described, see Gilderoy’s reaction to it and witness the sound effects being created. Berberian Sound Studio convincingly demonstrates how effective cinema can be even when the mechanics of how it is made are completely exposed. Like being enchanted by a puppet even when the puppeteer is on full display, the squelching sound of watermelons being smashed to convey trauma to the body and the ripping sound of radish stalks being pulled out to convey hair being torn from the head, are still gruesome. Along with various other classic sound effect techniques, the film also depicts human voice actors providing not only the dialogue, but also the haunting singing used for the soundtrack as well as the deranged vocal sounds of the supernatural characters. The entire illusion of how sound is created and manipulated in cinema is on complete display in Berberian Sound Studio and yet this somehow enhances its mystique.
As well as the magnificent sound design, Berberian Sound Studio is visually impressive with the claustrophobic and darkly lit sound studio set enhancing the menace that Gilderoy feels from The Equestrian Vortex and some of his co-workers. Graphic matches and match-on-action edits between the scenes in the studio and the scenes in Gilderoy’s small room, bring together the various settings to create a sense of never-ending work, where The Equestrian Vortex relentlessly intrudes into Gilderoy’s psyche. As the physical spaces in Berberian Sound Studio collapse into each other through the editing and production design, Gilderoy loses the ability to discern between the objective world, the world of The Equestrian Vortex and his own unconscious. This blurring of the boundaries ultimately makes Berberian Sound Studio a dark psychological thriller, from the perspective of a highly unreliable and unstable protagonist.
As the frequently sadistic content of The Equestrian Vortex begins to permeate into Gilderoy’s mind, the dynamics of the studio personnel are seen to reflect the content of the film they are working on. The female actors hired to record the voices of the various victims are bullied by the bad-tempered Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who demands they scream more authentically and belittles them for having only been hired because the director Santini (Antonio Mancino) slept with them. As the tortures inflicted upon the characters in the film-within-the-film intensify, Francesco’s behaviour also gets worse as do his strategies for getting the women to scream the way he would like them to. Gilderoy also suffers substantially, having to endure Francesco’s condescension and criticism as well as Santini’s passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness about the artistic merit of the film, which Santini refuses to acknowledge as a horror. The violence staged on film begins to reflect the emotional abuse behind the scenes.
Berberian Sound Studio is a masterfully made film that will please audio experts, cinephiles and horror fans, especially fans of films from the era made by directors such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. The film lovingly presents the analogue sound recording and mixing process in just the right level of detail to entrance enthusiasts without being overly technical. The exhilarating sense of dread that Strickland coaxes from the audience through sound alone is very impressive as are the moments when the film demonstrates how much sound can give meaning to the visuals: when Gilderoy is splashed with tomato soup it is impossible to think of anything other than blood, shots of the decaying vegetables used for sound effects disturbingly evoke the frailty of the human body. The film becomes increasingly non-lineal and subjective as the boundaries between the truth and fiction collapse for Gilderoy. However, audiences happy to surrender to the craft on display will have no problem indulging in Berberian Sound Studio’s aural and visual pleasures. And if there was any doubt about the best way to appreciate such a film – or any film for that matter – a red sign frequently flashes in the darkness with a very clear and simple instruction to the viewer: SILENZIO.