Sound Mind: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – DVD review
A masterclass in the editing of sound and image transforms Strickland’s playful, perplexing Giallo homage into a densely packed voyage into madness.
Berberian Sound Studio
(Peter Strickland, 2012)
When you think about it, filmmaking is a weird affair. All that time and effort and creativity in the service of such artifice! In so many cases, the aim is to bring the unreal to life, even as the real is being made unreal, by cutting up the chronology of what were filmed to find the best takes, and then augmenting that ideal with carefully synchronised sound.
At its most extreme, you have the golden age of Italian giallo, where horror directors lavished FX budgets on filming the unspeakable… and then did it all over again in post-production, not only taking the utmost care of the squelching of blood and the slashing of knives, but hiring totally different actors, hired for their prowess at screaming, to voice the characters.
It is into just such a cauldron of deliberate strangeness, the filmmaking facility of the title, that Peter Strickland brings the hero of his film. Toby Jones is Gilderoy, an uptight English sound engineer who can’t quite square the banality of mixing desks and tape reels with the degradation he’s being asked to soundtrack. At its simplest, Berberian Sound Studio asks ‘what if’ a man was driven mad by endlessly having to turn innocent activities such as cutting up lettuces or snapping radishes into the sounds of torture. But Strickland isn’t interested in simplicity, and uses the schism – the dissonance between sound and image –to ask some searching questions about culture, identity and illusion.
The masterstroke is that, aside from its lovingly parodic title sequence, we never see a frame of footage from the film Gilderoy is working on, the fabulously named The Equestrian Vortex. Yes, we hear an awful lot of this terrible, sub-Suspiria study of witches rising from the grave to exact revenge on the society who butchered them, but the sounds are always juxtaposed – in playful and disconcerting ways – with the banal process of performing and recording. Not since Reservoir Dogs has there been such a powerful narrative vacuum at a film’s centre, around which the director can warp his story in more interesting directions. The fluidity of sound gives Strickland the latitude to mix the imagery itself, cutting elliptically from Gilderoy’s ‘day job’ to his troubled downtime in a dingy hotel room and back again, the screams lingering long after the fact.
Such formal richness is a metaphor for cinema itself, of course – and Berberian Sound Studio would make a fascinating double bill with The Artist on the place of sound in movies. Here, Gilderoy is both archivist and architect, curating sound only to recontextualise it. As he does so, the noise becomes a cultural echo chamber, a blurring of certainties. (Wittily, Strickland notes how Gilderoy’s prized collection of everyday British sounds can be added to the witches’ brew.)
But there’s a wider point: it’s also a metaphor for identity and sanity. It’s no accident that Strickland makes Gilderoy an innocent abroad. He’s a typical British documentarian, usually employed to capture “reality”, and yet here faced with a subversive tradition of exploitation cinema. The portrait of the Italians is far from politically correct: the producer is a crook who seemingly has no intention of paying Gilderoy, while the director is a lecherous hypocrite who pretends his film is an important study of history while trying to get his end away with nubile young starlets. But the point is the collision with Gilderoy and how, over time, their sexual candour and moral laxity breaks down his prissiness.
This is expertly played by Jones, an actor so often employed for his talent for mimicry (most famously as Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter films) yet who is here required to silence his voice to focus on the finely calibrated furrowing of Gilderoy’s brow as unreality takes over. For sure, Strickland knows his art-house cinema, with nods to David Lynch (a running joke finds deadpan menace in the sign outside the studio which reads ‘Silenzio’ as if in homage to Mulholland Dr.) and Ingmar Bergman (at one point, the images we’re watching buckle and fragment like in Persona). Yet Jones’ presence, so central that he’s credited on-screen before the writer/director, leaves us in no doubt that this is a British film to the core.