Another film from Peter Strickland, who gave us the incredibly unique The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones as mild-mannered, British sound engineer Gilderoy who accepts a job in Italy, working on what he thought would be a simple equestrian film, but which turns out to be something far more violent and shocking. Essentially forced to engineer the sound for a film that he finds incredibly brutal and wrong, while all the time being surrounded by condescending, arrogant co-workers, Gilderoy is driven to madness and frustration as he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality.
This film is fundamentally about sound and as such, it is used very effectively; we get to see how many different sounds are created (mostly by smashing and stabbing lettuce!) and the film is clearly praiseworthy for its sound design and editing. Strickland also uses silence very effectively, in order to heighten the tense, uncertain atmosphere of the film. In addition, the music is great; Strickland again uses the harpsichord as well as choral vocals to create an otherworldly, strange atmosphere.
What’s also laudable about this film is that even though we are led to believe that the pivotal film being made is incredibly violent and horrific (with drownings, witches, endless screaming, torture and red hot pokers being inserted into the worst possible places), we never actually see any of the footage and Strickland leaves it all to the imagination, allowing us to know precisely what is happening through scene descriptions given by the director well as glances at the script, stating what is happening in the film and what sound effects accompany the action.
This is very effectively demonstrated in one of the opening scenes wherein we see Gilderoy and the producer watch some particularly violent footage while the crew simulate the sound effects by aggressively hacking and smashing watermelons. Through all of this, we continually focus on Gilderoy’s uncomfortable, nervous reaction as we realise what kind of film he is being made to work on. It is refreshing to see this kind of uncompromising approach and it is clear that if this was a Hollywood film, the footage would probably be shown, most likely with CGI.
Toby Jones is perfect in this film as he initially goes from being the uncertain fish out of water, trying to adapt to this hellish environment, to slowly losing his grip on reality as he becomes increasingly disturbed by the footage that he’s watching and descends into the darkness; reality and fantasy collide and soon, he finds himself being dubbed into Italian. There is great support as well, from the openly hostile, condescending producer to the smarmy, smiling, creepy director; both very different, but equally repulsive. In addition, it was great to see The Duke of Burgundy‘s Chiara D’Anna again, unique face and all!
As with The Duke of Burgundy, there is a certain otherwordliness about this film; even though we know that it is taking place in Italy, it is filmed in such a way that it might actually be happening in some strange, unknown place, far away from the real world. This is achieved through the grainy look of the film as well as the claustrophobic atmosphere and peculiar characters.
Very cleverly crafted, confidently written and directed, Berberian Sound Studio is a unique, unsettling film about madness and of course, sound. Toby Jones is perfect.
★ ★ ★ ★