Berberian Sound Studio is a psychodrama film set in an Italian studio of the same name where an English sound engineer and Foley artist has been hired to work on the post-production of a giallo film. Unused to working on films other than quaint nature documentaries, he becomes increasingly filled with dread, anxiety and concern until a derealization disorder begins to develop.
One of the miracles of film is that in spite of knowing everything on screen is manufactured, from the set to the costumes and even the performers' emotions, this somehow spools together to seem real, leading to a viewer's further emotional involvement and connection to characters and story. The other aspect is how filmmakers are able to thread in other subtexts and foreshadowing through colour schemes, the placement of objects in the sets and how shots are set up as well as edited together: as everything needs to be produced to be filmed the filmmakers can tell another story, or bolster the one being told. As a filmwatcher, you can consider this latter aspect as either a conceit or artistry but you cannot resist the impact it has on you as a viewer: you will either consciously or subconsciously be affected.
The most frequent use of audience manipulation, whether by plot twists or production effects is in horror films. From the way Bruce Willis' character interacts or doesn't interact physically with other character in The Sixth Sense to the statement on racial prejudices in Night of the Living Dead, we are given the clues to anticipate what will happen, while at the same time pulled along so fast as to not be able to think about it. Sound design plays a large part in this, with the best example being the raised volume of the 'fake-out': someone surprised by a simple diagetic sound, amplified for us viewers to give us and the character a shock, then a beat of relaxing from that shock before the true horror attacks for real. And, somehow, the sound effects of someone bludgeoned, disembowled, devoured and defenestrated seem real to us, even if paired with dodgy makeup and prosthetics, making us squirm and recoil, unable to unsee what we are hearing.
Berberian Sound Studio reveals a lot of the 'tricks of the trade': hacked up watermelon for chopped limbs, thrown marrows for tossed bodies, or tops ripped from radishes for hair torn from scalps. Gilderoy, the hired in sound engineer, is reluctantly roped into some of this sound reproduction by an alpha male of a producer, who seems to have some hidden agenda. The producer provokes and criticizes the actresses hired in to scream while the sound effects are laid onto the audio track (a parallel to Kubrick's antagonism of Shelley Duvall while making The Shining to instigate a more highly strung performance). The film director, with certain links to Dario Argento, denies the film is horror or giallo, insisting it is political commentary, all the while sexually harassing his actresses. As Gilderoy develops a liking to one of the actresses, he finally breaks down when asked to replicate the sound of a hot poker insertion.
While playing off a 'fish out of water' humour at the start of the film, soon a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia sets in. The producer sends Gilderoy into the small sound booth to replace a microphone. Repeated visits to a PA for a travel refund builds up to more Kafka-like frustration. There are perfectly timed lingering pans of or cuts to the set: splattered and crushed rotting vegetation, jittery oscillation machines, hand weathered audio tape boxes, a skittering daddy long legs which Gilderoy picks up and deposits outdoors only for it to return again and again. We never see the film he is looping, apart from its title sequence (which appears a moment after we see a sign for the studio which is this film's title), a violently red background fast cut of blown up woodcuts of devilish deeds (very similar imagery appears on a painting in the first cabin scenes of The Cabin in the Woods, with the camera cutting between various details).
Letters from his mother back home at first cause loneliness and finally despair, coinciding with the sudden disappearance and replacement of an actress, which introduces the concept of either an unreliable narrator or a descent into a nervous disorder. The film becomes its own film, and we are pulled further into the darkness.
By the film's end, there are obvious parallels to David Lynch's films, especially Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive, but Berberian Sound Studio is its own creature, with both stand-out acting and production design, and a chance to see how film sound was made before the digital revolution. Highly recommended for film theatre viewing.
Director and Writer: Peter Strickland
Gilderoy played by Toby Jones