by Matt Levine
With their eye-popping visuals, grotesque surrealism, and time-capsule weirdness, it’s no surprise that giallo films have, since their inception in 1960s Italy, appealed to audiences who crave a dash of sleaze along with their mad poetry. Combustible mixtures of Grand Guignol horror, pulp storytelling, and all-out visual and aural hallucination, gialli—at their demented best, as in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) and Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980)—truly resembled waking nightmares, awash in impossibly bright colors and disorienting soundtracks comprised of off-kilter post-dubbing and delirious musical scores. It’s an appealing genre for filmmakers as well, who are practically given free reign to overindulge themselves in the stylistic jigsaw-puzzle of cinema.
DVD, Netflix Instant, Amazon
Director: Peter Strickland
Producers: Katherine Butler, Robin Gutch, Hugo Heppell
Writer: Peter Strickland
Cinematographer: Nicholas D. Knowland
Editor: Chris Dickens
Cast: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Guido Adorni
Premiere: June 28, 2012 – Edinburgh International Film Festival
US Home Viewing Release: December 10, 2013
US Distributor: IFC Films
This uncanny artificiality has, again unsurprisingly, spawned cinematic imitators over the last half-century, most notably Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer (2009)—an opulent rebus that approaches giallo with one part intellectual reflexivity and one part dazzled adulation. While Amer stresses the psychosexual symbolism of this peculiar corpus, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio honors (and dismantles) the formal composition of giallo films, focusing much of its deconstruction on the aural components too often undervalued when watching movies. Resembling, at times, a Lynchian remake of Blow-Out (1981), Berberian Sound Studio follows a timid British sound engineer (his forte is the soothing tranquility of nature documentaries) to an Italian sound studio finishing post-production on its latest giallo provocation. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), our hapless soundman, is mysteriously invited by a pompous, self-styled auteur named Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to finish scoring The Equestrian Vortex—a seemingly vicious horror film (though Santini would never admit as much) whose striking opening credits are the only images we’re allowed to witness. The grisly sonic world that Gilderoy reticently enters quickly breaks down his ability to distinguish reality from illusion, causing the real world and The Equestrian Vortex to bleed into each other. The nightmarish movie-within-a-movie that encroaches sinisterly upon reality is a tired, self-reflexive gimmick in surrealist cinema, but it’s made slightly fresher by Berberian Sound Studio.
The Equestrian Vortex truly sounds like a sadistic horror show, but we are never (perhaps thankfully) provided access to its images. With taunting wit, the movie constantly threatens to unleash giallo’s most controversial aspect—its graphic violence—yet permits us only to see sound designers smash melons and scalp radishes to accompany the horrors that go unseen. That might seem to let squeamish viewers off the hook, but one of Berberian Sound Studio’s cleverest ploys is to make us realize how much more terrifying our mental image is than explicit manifestation: it turns out the sound of a body slamming into concrete is more unsettling than the image.
This visceral response to gruesome scenarios, whether visualized or not, suggests movies as a kind of temporary insanity—something like a cerebral hemorrhage. Berberian Sound Studio’s emphasis on the formal construction of cinema should make us realize, along with Gilderoy, that such unwatchable horrors are optical and aural illusions, tricks manipulating reality; yet both the audience and Gilderoy are repulsed by the bloodshed obliquely witnessed, either despite or because of its blatant artificiality. As someone who tinkers obsessively with analogue magnetic-tape recorders—someone who can create the eerie whistle of a UFO with a lightbulb and steel wire—Gilderoy provides the perfect opportunity to expose the aural construct of cinema like a raw nerve. The disturbed soundman, both appalled and morbidly enticed by the cruelty of The Equestrian Vortex, loses his grip on reality and drifts into some kind of parallel world that emerges in his head; and it’s somewhere in here that the movie leaves us, escalating into increasingly puzzling dementia until it can’t get any vaster, with a perplexed Gilderoy beholding a ghostly speck of projected light as the creator of the universe.
Jones offers a witty, dexterous performance as Gilderoy, but even so the movie conveys a dizzying aura of insanity more ably than it evokes believable characters. In a sense, Berberian Sound Studio paints itself into a corner: for two-thirds of its running time it hauntingly approaches the outer gates of nightmarish surrealism, but once it enters that foreboding territory it has nowhere else to go. The climax is a series of menacing episodes that are astounding to watch but, although beautifully staged, they can only follow one another in succession until the movie runs out of mind-boggling ideas. Surrealist disintegration is a tricky narrative conceit, and Berberian Sound Studio cannot achieve the same intense emotion, dynamic characters, or lunatic beauty of a pinnacle such as Mulholland Drive (which Berberian Sound Studio alludes to by occasionally splaying the word “Silenzio” across the screen in blood-red letters—vaguely contextualized as a warning light outside one of the recording room’s doors).
But if Berberian Sound Studio ultimately fails to resonate, that shouldn’t disparage Strickland’s incredible achievement as an innovative stylist. In only his second feature (after 2009’s Katalin Varga), Strickland demonstrates an exciting willingness to experiment and an intimate knowledge of manipulating film form to evoke catalytic responses. One scene in which esteemed voice actress Katalin Ladik overdubs a demonic witch reaping savage vengeance on her tormentors is inexpressibly frightening—not only because of the hideous sound effects, but equally because of the dagger-like shards of neon light and aggressive framing by Strickland and cinematographer Nicholas Knowland. An ominous musical score by the British band Broadcast accompanies a subtle yet meticulous soundscape, allowing the sonic expansiveness of Gilderoy’s world to reveal itself slowly to the audience. Even Strickland’s few concessions to outright giallo-tribute are masterfully done, most notably in an abrupt cut from grim violence to a placid pastoral scene that recalls a similarly baffling edit in one of Argento’s most underrated concoctions, Opera (1987). If Berberian Sound Studio loses its footing in the final third—a pitfall ironically shared by any horror movie which adeptly establishes an atmosphere of encroaching dread, only to falter when it attempts to provide logical and satisfying closure to the mysteries at hand—it clearly demonstrates Strickland’s burgeoning confidence as a filmmaker. Not to mention his sly sense of humor: if the sights and sounds provided by movies can so pervasively invade our minds, then watching—and listening—to their dream reality always entails an invitation to madness.