Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio really stuck with me, and truth be told I am not sure why. There is something about it that manages to crawl its way inside you and stick when, in actuality, very little occurs during the film’s running time.
Berberian begins as a fish out of water tale, as our protagonist, a shy British sound engineer arrives in Italy in the early 70’s to work on what he believes is a film about horses titled The Equestrian Vortex. However he soon learns he is doing sound design for a horror film that seems to be a mixture of Suspiria and Mark of the Devil. Slowly Gilderoy is drawn into a world of strange characters both in the film he is working on and populating the studio he is working in. There is the overbearing and abusive producer, the somewhat removed from reality director, and the strange voice cast, not to mention his two sound assistants Massimo and…..Massimo.
Gilderoy does not mesh well into the early 70’s world of Italian film and attitude, and quickly becomes homesick. Day by day he works on the film, slicing into vegetables to create the sounds needed for the films murders and creating other soundscapes and night by night he becomes more lost, dwelling on letters from his mother at home or soundscapes recorded back in England. We never see the actually contents of the film itself, only descriptions of scenes, dialogue, and Gilderoy generating sound effects. Discarded vegetables begin to rot in the studio, becoming progressively more putrid as Gilderoy’s psyche becomes more and more damaged.
Slowly his hold on reality begins to slip as he begins to see parts of his life incorporated into the film he is working on and parts of the film interjected into his daily routine. There is an ominous feeling that something horrible is waiting around the bend at any moment in Berberian, but truthfully we are seeing the character study of a man losing himself. The film is really about image, sound and mood. It is a marvel to behold and hear, even when it is crawling along at a snail’s pace.
Much has been made of the film being an homage to the giallo films of the 70s, but in actuality I found the film to have more in common with the works of David Lynch. Clearly The Equestrian Vortex is an homage to the giallo genre, and the incredible use of soundscape in the film reflects the genre’s reliance similar soundtracks. However the actual structure of the film was far more Lynchian; a character’s slow decent into madness revealed through progressively surreal imagery and sound.
Looking over the films I’ve reviewed so far on Living24fps and thinking about Berberian actually helped me realize something about my own taste in film. I am clearly drawn to films where imagery and atmosphere take more prominence over plot. I like it when a film gets under your skin. Much like The Equestrian Vortex gets under Gilderoy’s, Berberian Sound Studio gets under the viewer’s. A film that has that power is a winner in my book.