Berberian Sound Studio is a film about a man who can’t get his expenses repaid and hurts a lot of vegetables — don’t worry, the RSPCV is on to it — although I suspect there may be rather more to it than this. I suspect there are hidden meanings. I suspect there are references to those nasty Italian giallo films of the Sixties and Seventies. I suspect it is, at least in part, a love letter to old, analogue sound technology. This is, in short, one of those arthouse tarts, always winking and hitching its skirt to those in the know. Yes, annoying for those not in the know — stop winking! Stop hitching your skirt! Have you no pride? — but I wouldn’t write it off all the same. It’s brilliantly creepy, whatever.
This is written and directed by Peter Strickland, whose first film, Katalin Vaga, a spare, unsentimental drama about the ramifications of a rape, won universal acclaim and quite a few prizes. Berberian Sound Studio is set in 1976 and stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a timid, priggish English sound engineer who usually lives with his mother somewhere idyllic near the North Downs (judging by the letters he receives from her). However, he is currently in Italy working at the Berberian Sound Studio on a film called Equestrian Vortex, an exploitation horror movie. Everything that happens does so within the studio, an atmospherically cramped, windowless, stifling place where Gilderoy must confront the language barrier, the menacing horror maestro, Santini (Antonio Mancino), a bullying producer (Cosimo Fusco) and a wonderfully hostile secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou), who leads him up Kafka-esque culs-de-sac every time he requests the monies he spent on his flight be reimbursed.
We do not see anything of Equestrian Vortex itself — thank God, given how squeamish I am — beyond the opening credits (bloodied skulls) but can guess at its nature though the conveyor belt of jobbing actresses brought in to scream blue murder into the microphones and by snippets of the narrative spoken aloud every now and then: ‘A dangerously aroused goblin wanders the tunnel;’ ‘The two women creep along the subterranean poultry tunnel only to find the putrid corpses of the witches.’
Gilderoy’s job, aside from mixing the sound on vast banks of analogue recording equipment, is to provide the sound effects, some of which you may wish to try at home. Want to replicate the sound of a witch’s hair being torn from her scalp? Take a bunch of radishes and sharply twist off the leaves, with a quick snap of your wrist. Want to replicate the sound of a woman’s head being smashed in? Try going at a cabbage with a meat-cleaver. The RSPCV is going to have something to say about this, believe me.
Anyway, Berberian is not a horror flick itself. But as Gilderoy, who has previously only worked on nature documentaries, is increasingly subjected to Equestrian Vortex’s various horrors, and as the letters from his mother become more foreboding, he starts losing the plot. The paranoia is racked up, as is the tension, and throughout there is a queasy feeling of unease. I have never encountered anything quite so auditorily menacing. (Want to replicate brains being splattered? Take a sledgehammer to a watermelon.) But what does it all mean? Is it more than a homage to the films of that era? Is it about the effect of screen violence on all our psyches? Why does Gilderoy become so cruel? Do poultry have tunnels? Is it ‘Berberian’ after Cathy Berberian, the avant-garde American soprano who was married to Luciano Berio, the electronic music pioneer? No idea. I can only say that, given what this film puts you through, it has a spectacularly unsatisfying, inconclusive ending. It’s one of those endings that you don’t know is the ending and you’re waiting for the next scene but then the credits suddenly roll.
So, worth seeing? I promise you have never seen, or heard, anything like it, and Toby Jones’s performance is fantastically gripping so, in those ways, yes. True, it is an arthouse tart, always winking and hitching its skirt, but it is also a thing in and of itself, and rather fascinating, in its horrible way,