This article was first published in Culturewatch. © Tony Watkins, 2012
Berberian Sound Studio is an extraordinary, profoundly unsettling film like no other. It’s the second film by independent British film-maker Peter Strickland, confirming the talent he demonstrated with his acclaimed debut Katalin Varga, which won the Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival.
It stars one of the very best character actors around, Toby Jones, as Gilderoy, a diffident, unworldy English sound engineer. Working in a studio in his garden shed, he is highly skilled at recording and mixing sound for documentaries about the South Downs near his Surrey home. But the film opens with him arriving at the studios of an Italian film company in the 1970s. All Gilderoy knows about the film he is to work on is that it is called The Equestrian Vortex. He is unnerved when it turns out to be a graphic horror film – a giallo film1 – which is entirely out of his range of experience.
Apart from the red and black title sequence of The Equestrian Vortex (in classic giallo style), we see nothing at all of the film, though it is being projected into the studio while the sound is being added. Apart from this title sequence, the only snippet of any film we see within Berberian Sound Studio is from Gilderoy’s Box Hill documentary, which comes within the nightmare final act. We do see two jobbing actresses – Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) and Claudia (Eugenia Caruso) – recording dialogue and blood-curdling screams in a cramped sound booth while they watch the projected film. We also witness two foley (sound effects) technicians – Massimo and Massimo (real-life experimental sound artists Jozef Cseres and Pál Tóth) – producing the sound effects of bodily mutilation by hacking watermelons to pieces, smashing marrows on the floor, and drowning cabbages. When Gilderoy first witnesses them attacking watermelons, while watching one of the scenes being projected, he is disturbed, and only reluctantly accepts a piece of melon afterwards.
The reserved Englishman contrasts sharply with the demonstrative Italians, and finds everything about the experience unsettling – including his difficulties in getting the cost of his airfare refunded. Producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) assures him he will deal with it later, but then claims it is the responsibility of secretary Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou). Elena is unwelcoming and uncooperative to the point of being hostile, and Gilderoy’s attempts to get his money become increasingly fraught. It gradually becomes apparent that this is emblematic of the corruption which pervades the production. He clearly only feels comfortable when he is fiddling with the wonderful array of analogue sound equipment (which forms a significant part of the film – this is a real homage to analogue sound engineering). As he lovingly tends to the equipment, reflects on his recently completed documentary about the natural history of Box Hill, and reads letters from his mother telling him about a family of chiff-chaffs nesting near his shed, we get the sense that he was profoundly content with what he perceives to be an idyllic life back home in Dorking.
As Gilderoy is confronted by the graphic scenes, he tries to register his discomfort about working on this kind of horror film, but the director Santini (Antonio Mancino) rebukes him: ‘Horror film? This is not a horror film. This is not a horror film. This is a Santini film. True, a Santini film is violent, I know. But questa è la vita – this is the life. It is part of the human condition. Please, please, Gilderoy, don’t call my film a horror film again.’ And later, as Gilderoy attempts to express his revulsion over flashback scenes of the torturing of alleged witches, Santini insists that, ‘These things happened, yes. This is history. And a film director must be true. I hate what they did to these beautiful women. Really, I hate it. But it is my duty to show. The world must know the truth and to see the truth.’2
The problem is that, while Gilderoy’s antipathy to the project and to his Italian colleagues grows, he is becoming implicated in the whole sordid business. He has become a collaborator. He may have accepted the piece of watermelon reluctantly and distastefully, but he accepted it nevertheless, and his doing so is symbolic of his participation. This is almost hinting at a corrupted eucharist, in which, by accepting and eating something representing flesh (bread, in the case of communion, representing the body of Christ), he signifies his participation. His attempt to leave the studio is half-hearted and ineffectual; he is too much of a timid Englishman to really challenge the forceful Italian director. The one person with whom he makes a connection, Silvia, tells him that he is going about getting his money in the wrong way: ‘You don’t just ask. You shout and stamp your feet.’ He tries this with Elena, but to no avail, and it is the only time he shows any assertiveness.
Gradually, Gilderoy is sucked into the project, and after Silvia is treated appallingly by Santini, he rapidly disintegrates mentally. Echoing aspects of the films of David Lynch (there is a very particular reference to Mulholland Drive) and Ingmar Bergman, the film becomes increasingly surreal as Gilderoy loses his grip on reality and becomes unable to distinguish between the fantasy he is contributing to and real life. (It’s also possible, especially given the Lynch connection, that none of what we see is real). Strickland is clearly engaging morally with a fundamental question about the nature of existence, but the ending is very ambiguous. The question apparently confronting Gilderoy is this: is his idyllic home the real world, while he currently inhabits an unreal claustrophobic nightmare? Or is beautiful, peaceful Surrey the fantasy, while the darkness, corruption and horror of the Berberian Sound Studio reflects the true nature of the world, which is he too inhibited to challenge?
Gilderoy hates what he sees on screen and in the studio, yet he becomes complicit in its corruption. There is a profound challenge to the audience here, without Peter Strickland needing to spell it out: to what extent are we implicated in our enjoyment of, or simply our watching of, films featuring things which would appall us in the real world? Is it an adequate defence to dismiss it as merely escapist fantasy? When we pay to watch a film, such as Quentin Tarantino’s extremely violent Django Unchained, are we not inevitably expressing approval of the idea of violence being entertaining? And if so, what are we to make of the disconnection between that attitude and our attitude towards real-life violence?
There is also a challenge to how we predominantly view life: as dark and corrupt, or as light and idyllic? The truth is that both strands are interwoven through the tapestry of life. As the letters from Gilderoy’s mother eventually reveal, violence and death pervade the beautiful natural world too. On the other hand, even in the oppressive atmosphere of the studio, there is a need for beauty, joy and celebration. During a power-cut, Gilderoy is asked to create his UFO sound effect, which he does using a wire brush and a light bulb: it’s a moment of unusual beauty. And at an impromptu celebration, Gilderoy asks what it’s in aid of, to be told that he should celebrate whatever comes to his mind. This tension is at the centre of our existence. Even in our darkness, those moments of beauty, joy, goodness and celebration awaken within us a sense of hope, or at least of longing, that things will not always be this way. It’s a longing that the Bible’s promise of a recreated world – free from corruption, exploitation, violence, and selfishness – will come to pass. On the other hand, Gilderoy’s irresolute sleepwalking into a hellish fantasy is a stark warning of altogether different outcome.