He could be K. coming to the Castle or Jonathan Harker paying a visit to Count Dracula. Just a man on an unusual sort of business trip. But the ever-so-cordial Mr. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, offering countless gradations of tempered disgruntlement) seems even less assuming than those unlucky literary forbearers. He is an English sound engineer come to Italy to commence mixing on a giallo film entitled The Equestrian Vortex —we are somewhere in the 1970s. This is not a horror film, Gilderoy is told—it’s a Santini film, Santini being the name of its director, a manipulative schemer and playboy of questionable talent. Whatever the case, Gilderoy just wants to do his job, which he clearly loves, and get his remuneration and travel reimbursements. But however touchy-feely these Italians may be, they seem alarmingly hesitant to cough up the promised cash. All Gilderoy can do is keep asking, keep working, and try to keep his head together.
Berberian Sound Studio is the second feature from English director Peter Strickland. It’s something of a horror film too, though the more time its protagonist spends on The Equestrian Vortex, the more Berberian Sound Studio begins to resemble a vortex itself. Gilderoy immerses himself in his work to an unhealthy degree—an alternate title could have been Audiodrome. Not a flicker of daylight penetrates the film, but the light of a film projector flickers away in scene after scene. This mixer’s sense of reality becomes mixed with that of the film he’s mixing—a film we never actually see. Mind you, while the film’s images are gorgeously lit and framed—images of foley artists massacring watermelons, of unhappy actresses overdubbing screams, of beautifully designed analogue gear in fetish close-up—we don’t really see much. What matters is what we hear, a meticulously textured sonic world slowly slipping away from the orderly and coherent until it shoots down an aural rabbit hole from which the film never returns.
Strickland has said that Berberian Sound Studio was inspired by music, specifically that of Nurse With Wound and Broadcast, who made the film’s excellent score. This comes as no surprise, not only because sound is central to the film—it’s literally the central word in the title—but because this film/object is less about telling a story than it is about the cultivation of a certain aesthetic/psychic space for the audience to inhabit. Watching Berberian Sound Studio so as to find out what happens next is probably not going to lead to a very satisfying experience—Inland Empire feels tidy and conclusive by comparison. Yet the film’s fascinating and often funny milieu is depicted with tremendous affection and detail. It is infused with a love of tape and moving parts, an interest in aspects of filmmaking rarely glamorized or dramatized, and an understanding of the peculiar, transitory relationships that form between the diverse artists and technicians that come together at various stages of production. I didn’t mind that Berberian Sound Studio didn’t really go anywhere, per se. I was happy to surrender to the creepy allure of this place for a time, and to heed the film’s most insistent visual refrain, an image of a flashing red sign that reads SILENZIO. Silence the part of your mind that wants any of this to make sense, and allow yourself to get lost in the hermetic realm of Berberian Sound Studio.