Berberian Sound Studio

Erika Sella delves into the murky world of 1970s Italian horror cinema, as seen through the eyes of a shy and retiring British Foley artist, in her review of Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio.

 Toby Jones as Gilderoy. Image courtesy of Artificial Eye.

Toby Jones as Gilderoy. Image courtesy of Artificial Eye.

A film about sound. Or rather, sound processing. A film about 1970s Italian giallo sleaze. Being an admirer of this particular genre, I thought I knew what to expect (plenty of blood, convoluted plots, black leather gloves), so I was rather surprised when I actually got to watch  - it was more of a Kafkaesque nightmare with its claustrophobic atmosphere and Lynchian finale.

In a way, the affinities with 1970s giallo and horror cinema are somewhat subtle, yet they pervade the whole narrative. Like many protagonists in Bava, Argento and Fulci films, Gilderoy (played by the ever-magnificent Toby Jones) is a fragile, at times disturbed character trying to interact with an unknowable, incomprehensible world. A shy and mild-mannered sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on a horror film, he is a fish out of water from the moment he lands in the country and tries to claim a reimbursement for his pricey flight.

He is portrayed as an almost otherworldly character with a professional background in nature documentaries. We soon realise he is bewildered by his emotionally volatile, exploitative and at times very misogynistic employers. Director Francesco Coraggio and producer Giancarlo Santini are flamboyant and at times almost threatening - the barrier between them and Gilderoy is not merely a linguistic one.

 Image courtesy of Artificial Aye.

Image courtesy of Artificial Aye.

The film they are working on, The Equestrian Vortex, is an exploitation horror film of the most extreme type, complete with beautiful women, plenty of blood, witches and a  ‘dangerously aroused goblin'. The interesting aspect about this 'film within the film' is that we never actually get to see any of it beyond its opening titles (incidentally, these are the only opening titles): we are asked to imagine what it might look like through association - rotten fruit and vegetables signifying something much more frightening - and, above all, through the sounds that are being created in the studio.

Indeed, analogue recording is arguably the film’s true protagonist. The studio itself is a claustrophobic yet extremely alluring space. The camera lingers lovingly, almost fetishistically, on reel-to-reel machines, oscillators, mixing desks, VU meters. And even though Gilderoy complains about the poor quality of the equipment he has to work with, one is reminded of the glory days of Italian film music (Bruno Nicolai, Roz Ortolani, Goblin) as well as of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It may be something to do with the ambitious original soundtrack being composed mainly by British groups (Broadcast, Nurse With Wound). Or maybe it’s simply Gilderoy’s unassuming persona: it isn’t hard to imagine him standing right next to Delia Derbyshire, wearing one of those white lab coats.

That persona is not as fixed as it first may appear. His psychological unravelling is crucial to the film's narrative: stuck in a cramped and dark space and surrounded by people who either intimidate him or confuse him, he ends up morphing into the nightmare he has created.  At one point, he even starts speaking Italian.

Strickland interrogates his audiences – he asks questions about ideas such as identity and deception. The studio's flashing light (SILENZIO) makes repeated appearances, perhaps representing the blurring of the line between of the film and reality itself. The excellent final sequence certainly asks more questions than it answers: much like a giallo, Berberian Sound Studio unfolds without following the logic of classic narrative cinema, hypnotising and finally luring the audience into a menacing and intoxicating world.

The DVD of 'Berberian Sound Studio' will be released by Artificial Eye on 31.12.12.