DIRECTOR Peter Strickland WRITER Peter Strickland STARS Toby Jones; Antonio Mancino; Guido Adorni CINEMA 31 August
Despite director Peter Strickland citing Death Laid An Egg as his main influence, the remarkable Berberian Sound Studio — only his second feature — is strangely accessible for a giallo come art-house film. And it really is quite something to behold; a genuine pleasure from beginning to end and possibly the best this year’s FrightFest had to offer.
We open with our central character, Gilderoy, arriving at a film studio in Rome. Greeted by the sound of screaming, he is alarmed, his mousey, submissive demeanour intimidated by an exceptionally rude receptionist. This is a man who is likely out of his comfort zone in having left his idyllic home in Dorking at all, and it is immediately clear that the sound role he has flown out for is not what he has been expecting: an equestrian film; literally a movie about horse-riding.
It is with Gilderoy that we learn the true nature of the film he has been invited to help make, a low-budget horror that features what he considers appalling violence. This we never witness, our interaction with this film-within-a-film strictly non-visual, via barked orders from the stereotypically obnoxious producer; actresses screaming in the sound booth; an array of fruit and vegetables the team stab and tear in order to create the sounds of murder on screen; and Gilderoy’s troubled expression. Thus, we accompany him on his journey through what is an inescapable film, and may or may not be an inescapable episode in his life, full stop.
Such a self-contained premise could wear very thin, very quickly, in lesser hands, but Berberian Sound Studio executes itself perfectly in attention to detail. Gilderoy, a short, podgy Englishman, is in sharp physical contrast to the good-looking Italians. Initially, a colder palate is used for the reels — there is a lot of focus on filmmaking tools here — which slowly come to match the surrounding colours, as Gilderoy is gradually submerged into this world. The silenzio sign outside the studio, acting as separator of sequences, comes closer to the viewer as he is further immersed. A parallel with chiffchaff chicks that have hatched back at home, reported to him by his letter-writing mother — voiceover courtesy of a guest appearance by Suzy Kendall — complement Gilderoy’s hope that his situation will improve, their death signalling an abrupt change in tone that provides a thoroughly ambiguous climax. Beginning life as a short, it is strange to imagine such intricacy in just a few minutes, and the impact that the sound, a character in itself, could have had.
Lavish attention to detail aside, the acting in such a format sees heightened reliance, and Toby Jones as Gilderoy is wonderful. Much rests on the man’s facial expression as the film goes on, and at no point is he anything other than completely believable. Berberian Sound Studio is simply one of the best films you are likely to see this year, repeat viewings essential for both viewing pleasure and detection of further detail.