1970’s Italian giallo is not a film movement that is as widely celebrated as most others. It doesn’t get the same focus as German expressionism or surrealism but it’s nonetheless as striking, and it’s these films that writer/director Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio pays homage to.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a timid English sound engineer used to working on picturesque nature documentaries. However, he is summoned to work on Italian giallo film The Equestrian Vortex and must do sound work on various horrifying scenes of torture. After days upon weeks of stabbing vegetables and being bullied by the film’s director and producer, the disturbing scenes he’s providing sound for slowly start seeping into his consciousness and he starts losing his grip on reality.
Berberian Sound Studio is a real assault on the senses. The vividness of colour used is striking, with reds and yellows in particular, as often the case in giallo flicks, accentuated to the fore. As you’d expect, the sound in the film is also very important and quite spectacular. Virtually every scene is defined by its impressive use of sound, whether it is the click of tape recorders, screaming actresses, or the complete absence of sound entirely. Here, the lack of sound can be just as arresting.
The sound is particularly important as we are never actually shown anything of the film Gilderoy is working on other than the lurid title sequence. Therefore, we only have the sound and dialogue to judge how distressing it is. This impressive visual and aural presentation of the film is outstandingly brought together by Chris Dickens’ editing, frantic one minute and drawn out the next.
Whereas the film excels in its presentation, it falls down somewhat on narrative, namely in its final third. Up to that point it builds slowly and draws a surprising amount of suspense out of the often banal environment of the sound studio. Something as dull as Gilderoy trying to recover his flight expenses somehow takes on sinister undertones. Toby Jones is excellent as the mild-mannered Gilderoy and there are a few touching moments that show his passion for his work. For example, when he imitates a UFO using nothing but a lightbulb and a radiator, it shows just how inventive the craft of foley really is.
However, when we do get to the film’s final third, the intriguing, brooding story developed thus far all of a sudden becomes utterly devoid of narrative coherence. It’s clearly a comment on Gilderoy’s state of mind, but it turns what was an intriguingly unsettling story into something almost incomprehensible. The ideas displayed are interesting and as visually and aurally impressive as what’s gone before but it does feel like somewhat of a let down.
For sound and film tech buffs, Berberian Sound Studio is no doubt a treat with the various pieces of equipment used, and it no doubt will resonate more with those familiar with Italian giallo. For those not well versed in either, there’s less to grab hold of but it’s a stimulating cinematic experience nonetheless.