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DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland
PLOT: Gilderoy, an English foley artist, takes on a job at an Italian studio to work on a horror film, and his mind begins unspooling.
COMMENTS: My dear Mr Strickland—I so very much wish that you could keep focused! Having now seen half of his feature-length output, it is clear that he’s a man with many, many ideas. Too many, perhaps? More likely, he suffers from too little discipline. Berberian Sound Studio is a fascinating movie, with a creepy vibe that fills like a soap bubble slowly ballooning until it pops two-thirds the way through, leaving a splattered mess of shiny viscosity on the eyes (and ears) of the viewer. Ground this film all you like with a shy, affable performance from Toby Jones; the moment you turn him into a sadistic Italian, all bets are off.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an awkward Englishman with an awkward name who arrives at an Italian sound studio both ready to work and to receive compensation for his flight expenses. The work ahead of him is ample; the reimbursement, less so. Never mind; under the alternately conciliatory and remonstrative guidance of producer Francesco Coraggio, Gilderoy dives into the project. The brainchild of giallo director Giancarlo Santini, The Equestrian Vortex is, from the sound of it, a hyper-violent, hyper-stylized film involving a witch’s academy, featuring plenty of flashes back to horrible (and “historically accurate”) interrogations of suspected witches. Gilderoy finds the on-screen violence increasingly hard to handle.
The “on-screen violence” is never actually displayed. In fact, other than the opening credits for The Equestrian Vortex (its score composed by a “Goblin”-esque band called “Hymenoptera”), we see none of Santini’s opus. But we hear so very much. The droning introduction of the scenes for post-production dubbing almost always involves the phrase “flashback to witch’s interrogation.” Countless fruits and vegetables, both large (chopped watermelon) and small (plucked radish stems), act as the aural stand-ins for violent stabbings, hair-tearing, and everything in between. (The sound effect method for red-hot poker inserted vaginally is almost comically mundane.) Gilderoy’s practical effects team, two gents by the name of Massimo and Massimo, perform their slices, bubble-blowing, and wrenchings with deadpan professionalism.
The “behind the curtains” view of foley in the 1970s is by far the most interesting aspect of Berberian Sound Studio. There are plenty of sinisterly odd characters: aside from Massimo and Massimo, there’s the secretary from hell, the creepily congenial director, and the tragi-cryptic leading lady. But while this homage to giallo and sound becomes rather confusing, this never translates into weird—the sudden onset of head-scratchers undermines the atmosphere at the same time as it blasts a hole in the plot’s coherence.
As in his latest movie, In Fabric, Strickland (who also wrote both films) cannot keep himself from branching out to the point of muddying otherwise compelling experiences. These captivating messes are done with some kind of precision, I have no doubt, but I wish he could turn down the background noise.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…utterly distinctive and all but unclassifiable, a musique concrète nightmare, a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety, with strange-tasting traces of black comedy and movie-buff riffs. It is seriously weird and seriously good.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)