1976. An introverted UK sound engineer (Toby Jones) working in nature documentaries goes to Italy to work on a horror film by exploitation maestro Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). Gilderoy composes bloodcurdling sounds from hacked vegetables, works out how to create chainsaw effects and mixes screams. But soon life begins to imitate art as both time and realities begin to shift...
A film that sets out to perplex—and perhaps succeeds more thoroughly than its maker intended—Berberian Sound Studio is also a souvenir (in the original, French sense of the word) of a vanished age and a superseded technology. Embedded in its tribute to a genre now mostly extinct (the Italian giallo, popular in the early-to-mid-1970s), is a requiem for something much broader: analogue filmmaking, and the various artisanal crafts it fostered and sustained. Accordingly, it is both a celebration and a valediction.
On a sensory level, it all works superbly
Strickland’s debut feature, Katalin Varga (2009), seemed to come out of nowhere—in every sense. A Romanian production, shot in the Carpathian mountains . . . but written and directed by a Brit, and with (mostly) Hungarian dialogue. As such, it seemed emblematic of a new paradigm: the European co-production of uncertain provenance. Unaligned to any particular industry, or even language. Alert to the shifting currents of funding and tax credits. Fleet, opportunistic, fully transportable.
But it was also a straightforward tale, told confidently and well: a woman, raped years earlier, travelled overland with the child born of the incident, intending to track down her attackers and take revenge upon them.
This one is similarly easy to summarise: Gilderoy, a meek little British sound recordist, comes to Italy to work on a horror movie, only to be bullied by the locals, and sickened by the project (a medieval slasher flick, memorably titled 'The Equestrian Vortex’—and never actually shown onscreen), until finally he’s driven mad. The telling, however, is anything but straightforward, and I can’t help but feel this obfuscation jars badly with what is, in essence, a very slender narrative.
Obviously made on a small budget, the action is almost entirely confined to the sound studio itself, a cavernous, creepily evocative space. (There is the sense that, for Gilderoy, at least, the outside world no longer exists.) The Italians are caricatures: the tanned, dissolutely handsome producer, by turns effusive and hostile; the bombshell secretary, positively dripping with disdain; the braying, idiotic raggazi. But perhaps this is the point—we’re seeing them through his eyes. And Gilderoy, we soon discover, is a notoriously unreliable narrator.
On a sensory level, it all works superbly. As befits a film so enamoured by craft, it’s a richly immersive experience, and a defiantly cinematic one: meticulously designed—in terms of sound, especially—and eerily under-lit. (Variety’s critic approvingly cited the 'brandy-coloured" hues of Nic Knowland’s cinematography.) And Toby Jones, a dependable supporting player in so many recent films (Frost/Nixon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Hunger Games), steps up to the lead with a drolly understated, typically singular performance.
Yet on a story level, the film never quite engages as deeply as it might. One keeps waiting for more: some additional complication or development, a final twist of the knife. Instead, about halfway through, comes the realisation that this is the movie. There are no more cards left to play; what we have is all it’s going to be. Which is fine—the ride is nothing if not smooth. And the detail is exquisite. Still, one can’t help but sense a missed opportunity. What is good might so easily have been great.
In the end, it’s one of those 'everything is mutable, nothing is as it seems" movies that fades quickly from memory, perhaps because it seems that so little—in broader human terms—is at stake. (Another example: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Fear X.) It’s not necessarily to Strickland’s discredit: this sort of free-associative surrealism is notoriously difficult to achieve. Yet whenever the studio’s red SILENZIO sign lights up, signalling another stage in Gilderoy’s descent into madness (a deliberate call-back, surely, to David Lynch’s 'Club Silencio’, from Mulholland Drive?), you might be reminded of the deep reserves of yearning and melancholy with which Lynch invests his own nightmares, and how impoverished most other dreamers seem by comparison.