The importance of sound in film cannot be underestimated; from soundtrack to dialogue to sound effects. But have you ever wondered how some of those sound effects are created? ‘A world of sound awaits you’ a character tells the protagonist of Berberian Sound Studio but he might as well be talking to the viewers of the film as the film presents us with a smorgasbord of sounds; sinister, sickening and on occasion surprisingly silly.
When a British documentary sound recordist goes to Italy to do the foley work and mixing on a horror film in the classic 70’s period of Italian horror cinema, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the subject matter and content of the film he has been employed to work on. Eventually it seems that the endless screams and sound effects of violence against women that he is forced to endure and create are making mild-mannered sound recordist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) lose his mind.
Gilderoy is a typically reserved British chap, meaning Toby Jones has to convey a lot of emotion through a very still, very understated performance. He is loneliness and humility personified, adding to the intensely sad depiction of the Englishman abroad. Surrounding a character like Gilderoy with the decadent Mediterranean filmmakers at the Italian sound studio makes Gilderoy even nervier and creates endless tension. The clash of cultures could not be more pertinently realised than with Toby Jones and the alpha male Italian stereotypes and beautiful women he is trapped with. The sound studio becomes like a nightmare prison as we watch this harmless little hobbit of a man descending into self-doubt and madness. It is not all misery and discomfort as the film finds the funny in exchanges between Gilderoy and his employers/captors. Gilderoy clearly is not used to expressing himself with strangers and the awkward hugs, misunderstandings and the language barrier make for amusement as well as embarrassment. Toby Jones’ performance is perfectly insular compared to the wilder gesticulations of his tormentors and is one of the best of the year.
Writer/director Peter Strickland explores intellectually interesting ideas about filmmaker’s and audience’s fascination with violence. By never showing the film within a film that Gilderoy has been hired to work on, the audience is left to imagine the horrors that are contained in the The Equestrian Vortex. Clearly a horrific Giallo film with witch torturing and all manner of depravity, Gilderoy must watch the film but we only seen him watching and making the sound effects, never what is on the screen itself. Berberian Sound Studio becomes a film about horror but not itself a traditional horror. There may be plenty of haunting tension and the sense of some dark gothic fear but equally there is no blood and no murder. Instead we are treated to a much more personal horror; the nightmare of a man out of his comfort zone, distressed by his job, his co-workers and his complicity in the horror being created. We, like Gilderoy, become implicated in the production of violence for film.
The casting of real life avant-garde experimental sound performers makes Berberian Sound Studio a very personal work to Peter Strickland who is clearly fascinated with the world of sound and he has consciously included collaborators and friends. Both Gilderoy and Strickland himself appear attentive to the mechanisms of sound production. The vintage equipment often fills the frame and becomes a clear celebration of analogue sound recording equipment. Much of the dark humour however is derived from the comical artificiality of foley production. Gilderoy seems humiliated at the undignified task of chopping and smashing vegetables in order to provide sound effects for the on screen horror. Sound becomes nightmarish as reality and fiction blend in Gilderoy’s mind and what is sound from the film within the film and what is not becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The Broadcast soundtrack is a knowing nod to Giallo films of the 70s and acts as another affectionate homage to films of that era.
Despite this attention to sound, Berberian Sound Studio is also a fantastic looking film. The studio is a wonder of meticulous production design and the mixture of lights and darkness make for an eerie atmospheric quality to the visuals. A mysterious haze of fog, many shots that lose their focus and blur and the blinding projector lights all give a dream like mood to the film.
Berberian Sound Studio crosses the boundary of filmmaking and fiction, revealing the methods behind the madness and exploring audience complicity, particularly in the treatment of women in horror film. It is a fascinating film that mystifies more than it excites. It is surreal, cerebral and a must-see for horror fans who can handle ideas and imagination rather than all-out violence.
The Making of documentary contains interview clips with writer/director Peter Strickland, producer Keith Griffiths (Illumination films), producer Mary Burke (Warp films), actor Toby Jones, Director of Photography Nic Knowland and some B-roll footage. The behind the scenes section rehashes some of the interviews but also includes lots of footage from the set and interviews with further members of the cast. Despite the repetition, it is an insightful look at the production of the film.
A more detailed interview with Peter Strickland probes his influences in terms of film and sound and even album covers. He discusses some of the challenges of making the film and working on the sound. Strickland is thoughtful and talks in great detail about most aspects of the production process from scripting to set design to soundtrack.
The deleted scenes are an excellent bunch with Strickland introducing them all and explaining his reasons for cutting them. All feel like minor deletions but Strickland’s justifications are fascinating and speak volumes about the editing process. He speaks repeatedly of having too many ‘climactic’ scenes but it really feels like a shame to have lost a couple of these scenes that explore the themes, particularly of Gilderoy’s complicity, further.
Strickland speaks over a production design gallery that includes pictures of dubbing charts and other artwork for the film. It’s probably all a bit detailed for casual viewers but will no doubt delight big fans of the film. Also included are the extended Boxhill documentary and the Berberian Sound Studio short that features two foley artists at work but solely for comedic purposes and finally the trailer.
Berberian Sound Studio is released on UK DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD 31st December 2012 and is available now on Curzon on Demand.