Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland – UK) 94 minutes
Though only a short distance separates the UK and France, British films are usually among the last to make it here, if, indeed, they make it at all. Unless the director is Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, the film will most likely languish in distribution hell for anything up to 18 months. The reason is the French just aren’t too taken with British cinema – often with good reason, but it is frustrating that sometimes good British films get their releases unjustly held up.
One such film is Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a brilliant homage to Italian 1970’s giallo horror films and also an endlessly fascinating exploration of the use of sound in cinema. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, an uptight, socially inept British Foley artist, who has been hired, for some reason, to provide the sound effects for a low-budget Italian horror film. The year is 1976 and the job takes place on a cheap, fusty sound stage in Rome, the Berberian Sound Studio. He immediately ruffles the feathers of the sound editor, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), with his faux pas and social awkwardness and he is disturbed to find out he is working on a ‘horror film’. When he meets the mercurial director Santini (Antonio Mancino) though, the latter upbraids him for calling it that, saying it is a ‘Santini film’, not some run-of-the-mill horror.
The film in question is your standard giallo fare, of the sort Dario Argento, Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci used to turn out (or, as in the case of Argento, still do). The film has been shot but the audio and dialogue needs to be overlaid in post-dubbing, as was common with Italian films of all kinds until the 1980s. It doesn’t help that Gilderoy is squeamish nor that he is being disturbed by strange nocturnal goings-on in the bedsit he has been allotted in the studio. His efforts to get his expenses reimbursed also meet with Kafkaesque indifference – the production company seems to have as liberal an attitude to paying its workers as online publications these days do. Being a consummate professional though, Gilderoy gets on with the job, hacking melons, splatting marrows, topping radishes and blending tomatoes, all to get the requisite fearsome sounds of bodies being slashed, crushed, necks being snapped and chainsaws revved up.
The conceit is not a new one, of course – Coppola’s The Conversation and de Palma’s Blow Out both had sound-engineers as heroes who discover sinister things hidden under the innocuous layers of everyday life. Former Cahiers du cinéma editor, Thierry Jousse, did a similar thing in his 2005 film, Les Invisibles. What makes Berberian Sound Studio different from those though is it folds the action back on cinema itself, making Gilderoy increasingly prey to the very film he is working on. He asks to be excused on a number of occasions and there are suggestions the film might contain actual snuff scenes. But that is all left to the imagination. We see very little of the film, hearing only its soundtrack. About two-thirds of the way through, the film alters its form quite ingeniously, beginning with a cut to a typical 1970s BBC nature documentary, which at first seems to provide some respite to the mild-mannered Gilderoy from his professional nightmare. The rest of the film is like a hall of mirrors as it shifts shapes continuously.
Sound is, paradoxically, the thing that really makes film. Once the studios decided audiences wanted to hear actors speak, the stakes in filmmaking were upped. If you don’t get your sound right, your film will not fly. A film shot on low-resolution stock or even with indifferent lighting can be rendered watchable if it is aurally convincing; the most impressively photographed movie on the other hand is nothing if it is not accompanied by a credible sonic texture. Sound-recording artists and engineers rarely get the credit they deserve for making cinema watchable, never mind tolerable. Berberian Sound Studio goes some of the way towards rectifying that while also being a wonderfully inventive film in its own right, in which the initial plot device is far more than a gimmick. The best film I have seen so far this year.