Peter Strickland’s brilliant Berberian Sound Studio is a horror movie that suggests what may occur in the instance of a film itself becoming the ultimate monster terrorizing the poor individual at its center. In this case, it’s Gilderoy (Toby Jones), an English sound designer in Italy on hand to create the elaborate soundscapes for The Equestrian Vortex, a gory giallo that the audience never even glimpses. Specializing in placid nature documentaries, Gilderoy is out of his element, both artistically and socially, which may or may not contribute to his gradual breakdown. Strickland employs an enduring, if also disturbing, playfulness in dwelling on the artifice behind making a horror film, but as this falsity is exposed Strickland simultaneously constructs a psychological freak-out directly undermining his image/sound association explored throughout and linking Gilderoy with his creator.
In Strickland’s world, sound is the bridge between fiction and reality, the physical and the imagined. The savage acts heard throughout The Equestrian Vortex, such as dismemberment or breaking bones, are created through the use of chopping lettuce and snapping celery. In associating a display of violence with a simple vegetable, Berberian Sound Studio’s deceptive semiotics provide humorous gags to the audience, but to Gilderoy, whose comfort lies in the peacefulness of nature, these moviemaking techniques may compromise his fragile stability. As Strickland implies, if fruits and vegetables can become a proxy for brutality, then, to that effect, what can’t? Perhaps Gilderoy takes it seriously when the giallo’s director, the womanizing blowhard Santini (Antonio Mancino), tells him that what they’re creating is honest and real. Strickland keeps us at such a distance from Gilderoy that any interpretation of his mental state seems valid. Whatever backstory there is involves his mother’s letters detailing newborn chicks that grow increasingly violent, itself another instance of harmlessness correlated with depravity. It’s not for nothing that the entirety of Berberian Sound Studio takes place within cramped and cluttered interiors, further bearing down on Gilderoy’s psyche.
To limit the film as one based exclusively in sound seems to detract from its other senses-assaulting pleasures, as its composed of the clashing and meshing of textures both sonic and visual. Strickland cites Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky as an influence, and the latter’s 2000 short film Outer Space provides the most explicit visual/aesthetic connection to Berberian Sound Studio’s latter third. Using footage from the 1982 horror film The Entity starring Barbara Hershey, Tscherkassky’s short reedits the movie (to the tune of his own unique styling) to give the impression that Hershey isn’t being stalked by some unseen diegetic force, but by the actual film she’s appearing in.
Like Tscherkassky, Strickland creates sequences in a similar manner that recalls a film reel unspooling and then burning from the nitrate, even implicating the same reflexive idea that abounds throughout Outer Space. Through a melding of some unexplained paranoia gnawing at Gilderoy and the practical effects he’s been reluctantly toiling over, Strickland utilizes these techniques he had been subverting to appear complicit in Gilderoy’s unraveling, personified in the fully cinematic breakdown of both character and film. Strickland manages to appropriate Berberian Sound Studio as both a deeply unsettling character study that attacks our perception of the “hero” while still maintaining the illusion that everything is just a movie.
In that regard, Strickland’s lack of exploring Gilderoy’s psyche and positing the audience as being always on the outside looking in makes perfect sense, as Gilderoy finds himself in the same position by having been (possibly) watching Berberian Sound Studio instead of The Equestrian Vortex, unable to control the course of the film. In the enigmatic closing image, as Gilderoy stares at a blank white screen, it may be seen as an invitation of sorts to decipher its infinite number of readings and theories in a film meant only to be experienced rather than unlocked. Or, perhaps, he’s finally achieved a full awareness of his status of being just another character in a movie, merely waiting for the next reel to start.
The balance between the image’s deep earth tones and brighter primary colors is nicely conveyed, though some sequences, particularly those set in the recording studio, do suffer from a higher grading of light that in the end make the picture a bit too soft and fuzzy. A clear and nuanced sound mix accentuates the film’s elaborate sonic designs, making for an appropriately immersive experience. Dialogue levels, however, are sporadically uneven throughout.
The biggest prize here is Peter Strickland’s informative commentary, which is sprightly throughout. The filmmaker is chatty and candid (though delicately, as he says, so as not to spoil any personal readings of the film) with nary a stretch of silence. A refreshingly true cinephile, Strickland peppers in details of the making of Berberian Sound Studio with references to the numerous films, giallo and otherwise, that influenced his own film’s aesthetic, and he even admits to reading blogs and reviews of the movie to see what other theories have originated. A 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurrette is interesting for insights into the technical side of the film’s making, even if it is innocuous overall. Also included is a nice bit of fluff: a five-minute "Box Hill" documentary that’s featured in the climactic breakdown, which was shot by Strickland and given a severely grainy archival look. The deleted/extended/alternate scenes are also entertaining (yet all rightly excised from the film), given Strickland’s elaboration that precedes each one. Also packaged are a poster and photo gallery (the latter featuring a commentary from Strickland), and a trailer.
An unsettling psychological freak-out that takes cinema and the senses to its farthest extremes, Berberian Sound Studio is given a serviceable transfer and rewarding commentary on this DVD edition.