Peter Strickland’s debut film Katalin Varga showed that the young first timer wasn’t afraid of a challenge. Shot with inheritance money in a language he didn’t know, the film surely told us something about the way that Strickland thought about film making. It seemed like he also wanted to be wrapped up in the mystery of it all as his titular character and as much as he wanted us to be. The film succeed on many levels. One of the things which stuck out, along side it’s strange ambient score, was a clear amplification of sounds, wind, water and woodland noises to be specific. An over tuned attention to audio detail which he has taken and moulded into a film which is entirely concerned with noise. Berberian Sound Studio is not only a leap of immeasurable proportions for Strickland it’s probably the best British film in years.
Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a mild mannered Englishman abroad in Italy in the 1970s, brought in to the sound studio in question to design and record the sound for a Giallo horror film brilliantly named The Equestrian Vortex. The steely beauty on the front desk and the odd bristly character of the film’s producer do little to help poor old Gilderoy settle in but he does his best anyway, in a very stiff English way. We see nothing of the film bar it’s wonderfully designed title sequence but it’s clear from the live sound only and the horror on Gilderoys face that it’s of a particularly nasty fare.
Watermelons are smashed, chopped and dropped, screams ring out frequently, tape winds and rewinds, the tops are pulled out of carrots, things are snapped and crushed all to the egotistical delight of the film’s womanising director. But as the production draws on and on Gilderoy starts to question the horror on screen and his participation in it, things start to get very strange indeed. In-fighting and bed hopping beween the voice over actors and crew, a dead pan foley team, constant studio black outs and letters from Gilderoy’s own mother turn the film over and over and over until it is unclassifiable as a thriller, drama, horror or comedy.
Berberian Sound Studio is in love with it’s subject. The close ups of Gilderoy’s scribblings for his sound ideas are wonderful and often strikingly funny, the romance of a long lost type of creation of sound is at the forefront here but Strickland never forgets about his purpose or his main character (A career best performance by Toby Jones). It rolls along slowly and with a magical original tension backed by a wonderful surging riddle; That type of mystery which is rife in the early efforts of Polanski or Lynch is loud and clear here, there for all to hear in all it’s crackling analogue glory.
In short it’s magic. There’s so much to choose from, it’s as rich and layered as the sounds Gilderoy pours over in his dark studio. Above all else it’s a lovingly crafted, technically wondrous film all about what it means to be enveloped in your work, apart from your life and at odds with your career but that’s only surface deep. It’s also a study of miscommunication, of loneliness, it’s a fish out of water comedy, it’s a horror film with no horror to find, and with a brilliant spiralling sense of madness towards the film’s baffling conclusion Berberian Sound Studio morphs confidently into a modern classic.