By Ross Maclean
Argento. Bava. Martino. Fulci. Lenzi. Not the names of directors that everyone will be instantly familiar with, but among fans of their chosen genre, giallo, they’re hugely respected. Giallo is a catch-all term for a certain type of pulpy Italian thriller that rose to prominence in the 1970s with highly stylised visuals and scenes of extreme violence.
Director Peter Strickland has chosen to set Berberian Sound Studio, his latest film following 2009’s Katalin Varga, in the world of those giallo films. Quite literally; it takes place in the 1970s at the eponymous post-production studio where Englishman abroad, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), has been drafted in as a sound engineer on just such a film.
Gilderoy is a buttoned-up, unimposing figure still living with his mother and used to working on pastoral British works. He’s immediately at odds with the brash, glamourous Italians and more concerned with doggedly attempting to reclaim expenses than the bella signorina he’s dealing with in order to. His fastidious work ethic clashes with Italian methods, not least from producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), and it begins to take its mental toll.
To call it an assault on the senses would be to do it a disservice. It’s a sensory celebration and a sonic appreciation of film itself. The film fetishises vintage recording equipment in a series of extreme close-ups which run throughout the duration. Considering the subject matter it’s no surprise that the sound design of the film is remarkable. Scenes of Jones carrying out Foley work (using objects to recreate sound effects required for a film) are a joy to observe. Using and abusing enough watermelons, cabbages, marrows and radishes to make a hideous stew, it’s an occasionally comic insight into what goes into making scenes of horror above and beyond the visuals.
For cinephiles, the film is a dream with a focus on technical aspects that assumes a prior knowledge of the way films are made. It positively worships film lore in a way that might leave some feeling excluded. There’s a crucial authenticity in its depiction and is helped by the creation of film-within-a-film that seems entirely plausible. While the film is a drama thick with artistry, there are times when it would make for an excellent behind the scenes extra on a DVD.
It’s worth noting that Berberian Sound Studio itself is not a horror-thriller like those it depicts. There’s barely anything in the film you would identify with the genre. It’s even left to your imagination what the characters see on screen in the film they’re working on. It is, however, a sublime psycho-drama which focuses on a character whose boundaries between reality and fiction are rapidly melting and decaying like the gruesome pits of rotten vegetables the film lingers on.
The key reference point for this film would be David Lynch’s Lost Highway (although a good knowledge of Italian gialli will reap dividends in being able to spot references to genre traits, such as black leather gloves). While the world it takes place in is very different, there’s a structural similarity that upends the entire film in a similar way.
It’s an enigmatic spectacle that conducts its scenes like a symphony. Enjoyment will be dependent on how open you are to seeing something with a resolution that doesn’t make conventional sense and will leave you more puzzled than instantly gratified.
There are enough twists and breakdowns to leave you chewing it over for days after, trying to unlock its mystery – and that’s a good thing. It’s refreshing to see something so cineliterate and compelling without giving you any easy answers as to what it was about it that grips you from start to finish.
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