Defying all predictability, Peter Strickland’s debut Katalin Varga (2009) was an English film telling a Romanian (and Romanian-language) rape/revenge story set to eclectic soundscapes by Nurse With Wound. Now, just as improbably, his follow-up is a bi-lingual tale of two halves (still with the odd snatch of Nurse With Wound for the sharp-eared) set in the claustrophobic world of audio post-production for a 1970s Italian horror – except that Berberian Sound Studio is itself dressed in the same vividly hallucinatory giallo stylings, with a Lynchian twist.
Berberian Sound Studio opens with a reel-to-reel tape player starting up, except that only the sound is sharp, with the impressionistic images taking their time to come into focus. Here, as in The Exorcist, The Conversation, Blow Out and Écoute le Temps, acoustics – and the ambiguities associated with them – will come to the fore, as sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) mixes the ADR, foley work and musical score for a brutal and clearly misogynistic film (‘The Equestrian Vortex’) that we constantly hear but almost never see – even if the garish black-and-red opening credits to this film-within-a-film replace Berberian Sound Studio‘s own title sequence.
It will not be the first time that the boundaries between film and ‘reality’ are breached – and the ‘Silenzio’ sign that repeatedly flashes red whenever recording is taking place serves as a clear indicator, at least to those familiar with Mulholland Drive, that there will be more to this film than at first meets the eye (and ear).
Like the heroines of the Suspiria-like film he is working on, Gilderoy is lost in an environment that he does not fully comprehend. More used to children’s television and local documentaries, he is the archetypically reserved Englishman out of his depth in Italy, with linguistic isolation adding to, even crystallising, his sense of alienation.
Exploited by his hard-nosed producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), manipulated by the lecherous director Santini (Antonio Mancino), and treated with officious contempt by the production’s secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou), Gilderoy soon wearies of having both to listen to, and to help create, endless recordings of female suffering, and is sustained only by his mother’s letters from their home in idyllic Dorking – yet as the audio from one scene starts bleeding crosstalk into the next, and as the technician’s life and the film on screen begin to merge, what Gilderoy sees, dreams and overlooks all blur into one paranoid nightmare of uneasy complicity. He may want out of the picture, but as Francesco insists, “It is just a film – you are part of it.”
With all its classic giallo trappings, right down to the unseen projectionist’s black leather gloves, Berberian Sound Studio seems to have an inevitably murderous narrative trajectory, but as its sensory overload never quite gives way to the expected sensationalism, Strickland disorients viewers with a sly meta-horror that reflects upon both the artifice that goes into genre films, and the uncomfortable reality that can underlie their vicious depiction of women.
Layering its narrative strands to the same unsettling effect as its retreating anti-hero mixes sounds, this film of psychedelic aesthetics and psychogenic fugues is the disorienting giallo that Lynch might have made – and one of the absolute standout films not just of FrightFest, but of the entire year.