Of Sound Mind: Berberian Sound Studio 

Berberian Sound Studio
Directed by Peter Strickland

The Englishman has long regarded the incense-perfumed mysteries of the Roman Catholic Continent, and its irreducible system of sin and indulgence, with mingled fear and desire. It has been so since the days of illicit pleasures on the Grand Tour, the days when Northern industrialists snapped up genre paintings of Venetian flower girls flashing available smiles, and Count Dracula ran amok in Albion’s imagination. A version of this relationship, pushed into hallucinogenic extremes, lies beneath Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a 1976-set culture-clash that operates on a far more subtle and insidious level than standard fish-out-of-water fare. The transplanted fish is Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a middle-aged English nebbish who writes letters home to the mother he lives with in Dorking, where he makes a living recording postproduction sound for innocuous documentaries about South Downs scenery in a cozy hobbit-hole garden shed.

When we first encounter Gilderoy, he's entering the Berberian studio. Through the length of the film he will only leave its subterranean, bunker-like confines in his mind. Gilderoy has been imported to Rome to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex. When he first asks to be refunded for his plane ticket as promised, he’s deflected to a secretary, who deflects him in turn. This turns into an ongoing shell game. With such techniques do the film’s producer, Santini (Antonio Mancino), and director, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco)—strapping, back-slapping, unctuous men of the world—keep the puny, inexperienced, and punctiliously polite Gilderoy constantly on his back foot, making him feel that he's forever committing grievous social blunders.

Timid Gilderoy is made a hapless prisoner in a corrupt system that he’s wholly unprepared to understand or negotiate, sucked into The Equestrian Vortex. We’re introduced to the film through the title sequence. It’s all silhouetted freeze-frame images before solid color backgrounds. These recall Michael Reeves’s seminal Anglo horror Witchfinder General, as does the film’s Inquisition subject matter—though what we’ll hear of The Equestrian Vortex seems closer to an Argento-esque horror-fantasy. I say hear, because the credits are the last images shown; we’re left to imagine the rest while Gilderoy goes about assembling the sound element with the aid of two foley artists named Massimo (sound artists Jozef Cseres and Pál Tóth) and, memorably, a voiceover actor who performs the part of a “dangerously aroused goblin” in the booth.

For the Italians, sex and death are familiar acquaintances, impossible to extricate from life. “Here,” Santini says, feeding Gilderoy a fruit with mocking sexual aggression, “we swallow the seeds.” While the Massimos go about the business of slaughtering produce with desensitized detachment, repressed Gilderoy is affected on a deeper level by the by-proxy brutality and begins to unspool like a reel of magnetic tape.

Strickland, himself an experimental musician, evokes the particular moment when outré electronic experimentalists became strange bedfellows with producers of transgressive exploitation and horror fare. Appreciative close-ups of vintage gear and recording charts show a filmmaker clearly obsessed with the appurtenances of the bygone analog age, the era that produced Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Scream. Like those films, Berberian Sound Studio is a narrative wrapped around the process of building soundscapes. But this is no mere piece of retro-hound crate-digging; as De Palma did, Strickland uses his backstage premise to reveal the real reptilian appetites and psychic wounds that lie beneath the surface of easily dismissed trash-horror.

Opens June 14

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