Unless someone conjures up The Gaffer Murders, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio must be the most affectionate fictional feature-length tribute to a specific technical discipline of filmmaking ever made. Too often, movies about making movies are happy to stick to generalities and well-worn tropes; the demanding director, the exiled writer, the beleaguered star, the starlet no one takes seriously. Strickland takes the opposite tack, luxuriating in the minutiae of moviemaking as a means to investigate not only our relationship with screen violence, but the dynamics that lurk within those who seek to conjure it.
Its ostensible hero, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is a British sound engineer brought to Italy in what appears to be the 1970s to work on a horror film directed by the enigmatic Santini (Antonio Mancino). As Gilderoy begins work on the film, whose graphic violence he is clearly unprepared for, we never witness the excerpts that Gilderoy toils on – only Gilderoy’s pained reaction. (Of course, we do hear the meticulous audio.) Reel-to-reel tape, editing bays, and single-sided editing razors are lovingly framed. The actors brought in for overdubs – the singers, the screamers, and the goblin-voicer – are shrouded in darkness; their craft is something holy here. Yet, thankfully, Strickland’s film is much more than an aesthetic celebration.
Berberian Sound Studio is most simply described as an almost exact cross between the narcotized surrealism of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and the ocular meta-horror of Bigas Luna’s Anguish. It shares with the former a willingness to toy with identity and to comment on the decadence and corruption inherent in filmmaking, and borrows from the latter the unlikely combination of giallo atmosphere and self-conscious humor. That it seems equally content to borrow from any number of chilly cinematic touchstones (especially Lynch) means that, occasionally, Strickland’s film flirts with pastiche – but there’s too much subtext lurking within Strickland’s film to accept it as mere homage.
For starters, there’s the film’s surprisingly critical, maybe even unsentimental take on horror, and giallo in particular. Santini, at first trumpeted as a genius and an inscrutable master of his domain, ultimately emerges as a fatuous womanizer whose tendencies towards manipulating his (mostly female) performers nearly undoes his own production entirely. His speeches about the origins of evil and human persecution – his film, The Equestrian Vortex, is meant to be a “realistic” take on historical witch-hunts – amount to little more than self-interested grandstanding. The women who make up Santini’s cast seem resigned to the fact that in Santini’s world, they’re second-class citizens at best. It’s not a coincidence that giallos themselves tended to be less than kind to women, generally treating them like walking cadavers.
And then there’s Gilderoy himself. Toby Jones, in a performance that can’t help but echo Michael Lerner in Anguish, is in nearly every scene of the film, bumbles his way from one corner of Santini’s massive studio to another, gradually becoming aware that his experience working on the film transcends the screen, and that its horrors may exist both in his own plane of existence and within him. From his regular correspondence with his mother, which gradually turns from idyllic to nightmarish, to his fantasies of rescuing The Equestrian Vortex‘s former star, to the film’s conclusion, in which everything we know about the production is upended completely (the section of the film which owes its greatest debt to Lynch), Gilderoy is the dark heart of the film. Like Berberian Sound Studio itself, he is much more than he initially appears.