Berberian Sound Studio. I’m still struggling to get the name right (too many vowels to get my head around). And the meaning of the film for that matter (too many dream sequences to get my head around). It may seem odd to begin with the end, but that is where my BSS experience seemed to take off. Fumbling for the remote in my darkened room, hoping it was just a habitual glitch of Netflix that had cut off my viewing so abruptly (and not the script), it is fair to say I panicked somewhat. How could it possibly end there? But it did, and it will, leaving no other option but to let out a brief but genuine whimper, a couple of loud sobs and an immediate re-watch to desperately try to claw definitive meaning out of the fucker. Yet, on closer look, it seems this film likes to play 4 degrees to the left of certainty.
Pursuing the power of suggestion, the rather loose plot follows Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a shy British sound engineer, who travels to the Berberian studio in Rome to begin work on a strange “giallo” (horror) film, The Equestrian Vortex – less about horses, more about the occult. As the outsider, he is isolated from the rest of the crew. He is quiet, a sore thumb in this world of sound and loud Italian voices ruling the fort, but he is the audience’s only connection to this otherwise unlikeable place.
As the horror of the fictional film becomes more and more intense in the studio (visuals cleverly never explicitly shown, only implied), Gilderoy’s world parallels, with bizarre dreams of his life playing out as a movie. Now his only comfort is in his mother’s letters, exhibited in rather blunt aerial shots, tracking down through her writing. No narration, no voices – rather ironic in a setting so saturated by noise. For brief moments, we are Gilderoy, our only solace in the handwritten words on a piece of paper. And yet, even these are tarnished – a recount of the murder of innocent birds. You can’t help but gleam a sinister edge at every turn.
What the film perhaps lacks in story, it makes up for in flair – a sentence I would usually despise and throw rocks at, yelling insults about ‘style over substance’. But in this case, with Peter Strickland at the helm, the beauty of the multi-sensory experience is enough to keep any keen eye, or, more fittingly, ear, gripped. Sight and sound work in blissful, metaphorically blood-spattered harmony.
But sound really is the making of the film, both in and outside of the studio. From the tap-tap of heels down a tiled corridor, to the choreographed smashing of watermelons (mimicking the smashing of skulls, naturally). This, paired with the emotionless images of the bearded and baleful-eyed foley artists, Massimo and Massimo. Of course, sinister goings-on ensue. You begin to question whether the real horror is in the film or in the people making it.
It is ambiguous and it is uncomfortable, but it is engaging. It tests your senses and plays with your mind, and for that, Berberian Sound Studio has to be applauded. Whether it is a ‘good film’ or a ‘bad film’ could be discussed for a lifetime, but what can be said for certain is it will stay with you.