There is a key to unlocking Peter Strickland’s dense and puzzling Berberian Sound Studio. A line of dialogue that comes from the director of the film within the film. A slip of the tongue. In movies about sound, or more specifically about processing sound, there are no slips of the tongue. Everything you hear is important, and everything you see is misleading. We put too much faith in what we see, oft times, and not enough faith in the other senses. Films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and and now this one, force us to listen to the process, wallow in it, even if we do not necessarily know what we are listening for.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us rewind.
Quiet and Introverted sound engineer Guilderoy, played by the chameleon and consummate character actor Tobey Jones, travels out of his comfort zone doing sound design for nature documentaries in Surrey, England, into the seething passions of the eponymous rundown Italian studio, to do the complete sound mix for a Giallo film: dialogue dubbing, foley, music. The movie has a curious title, Equestrian Vortex, which may mean that Guilderoy is on this foreign assignment by a complete misunderstand of the films content – It could have been a documentary on horses. Instead it is about the murdering of a sect of witches and their beyond the grave revenge. The clash of cultures that goes beyond the simple language barrier upon his arrival or the fact that the film has severe misogynist undertones and extreme violence which is alien and unsettling to the english engineer. The ladies of the film show up to do a lot of screaming, and the local sound engineer, Francesco, spends his time bullying and berating them: “You co-operate and you do not question!” The environment is toxic, and Guilderoy seems instantly mired there by virtue of his own English politeness.
Things start out immediately wrong when there is no sign of the director and nobody is inclined to reimburse him the cost of his pricey air-line ticket. When the director of the film, Santini, sort of a gutter version Marcello Mastroianni from 8 1/2, shows up, it is with an entourage, a large dog, and a lot of empty verbiage. Santini intones towards Guilderoy that he is not making a callow horror film along the line of Susperia or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, but rather a film about “the human conditioner.” Is it bad English, or a slip of the tongue? No, Berberian Sound Studio itself is a human conditioner, along the lines of the best Lynchian efforts, the ones that make you intensely uncomfortable often for difficult to articulate reasons. If Mulholland Dr. is a movie that is going to come up often in relation to this, it is might the somewhat off-kilter narrative of last act of the film, but really, it is because the sound studio has a red flashing sign reading SILENZIO, the name of the club which is a gateway to the subconscious David Lynch’s masterpiece, and is probably serving the same function here. The film transitions between Guilderoy’s spartan hotel room and the studio with such marvelous cuts that you wonder if he ever actually leaves the studio or if he even has a hotel room. The music in the film is all diegetic. (Or is it?)
Taking the non-logic of the bulk of Giallo narratives, and deceptively folding it into the film surrounding the film is one of the many alienating aspects of this film. The film may be built with the syntax of Gialli, but has a deceptively different artistic goal, one that flirts with equally with Kafka’s The Trial as much as it does with Welles’ F is for Fake. It is telling that the close-ups of a black leathered glove (a common image of the murder in the genre) is the one operating the projector, not wielding the blade. Like a good magician, Strickland lures the audience in with its fussy, meticulous sense of his (and Guilderoy’s) craft. A lot of watermelons and cabbages were harmed in the making of Berberian Sound Studio; their pulping, crushing and smashing provide all the juicy sound effects of the women being murdered onscreen, but also what the makers of this film had to probably go out and do for the purpose of the films detailed sound mix. It’s meta, but it doesn’t rub you nose in it. It delights in the processes of itself. For instance, a show stopper is watching Guilderoy replicate a perfect theremin using a lightbulb rubbed down a wire mesh with his own low-pitched whistle.
We never actually see what is on screen for Equestrian Vortex, but in keeping with the films raison d’etre, are given ominous (and often hilarious) verbal set-ups from the grizzled old technician who indeed wears those leather gloves. A lot of dials are turned, and the camera lingers on oversized analogue instrument displays of the era. There is a poetry in the log-book entries for all the sound cues: “A breeze through the Burford Spur” or “Moans from a dangerously aroused goblin.” As we focus on Guilderoy’s process, both his attention to technical detail and his oil-and-water interaction with the Italians, we begin to see the toxins slows seep into him (his job, the celluloid and magnetic tape are all the surfactants.) Human Conditioner. His ‘death’ is not one by sharp objects and instantaneous, bloody violence, but rather the spider slowly being caught in a web not of his own devising; a visual metaphor repeated in both in Guilderoy releasing an arachnid from his apartment at one point, and a tangled mess of destroyed reel-to-reel later in the film.
The film is not entirely without humour, but its comedy is subtle. A one point an actress critiques another actress with the comment, “She doesn’t even scream in Italian!” Francesco, perhaps the rudest man in the film, is constantly giving Guilderoy advice on manners and decorum. Incommensurable cultures, England and Italy, provide a fair bit of grist for this particular mill and yet it possible for change, for better or worse. We are all mimics in one way or another. Be that as it may, the film is far more in love with the thick and syrupy italian line readings, and its devotion to a genre that lives and dies by the melding of sound and image over logic or narrative. It is not what you see, but what shows up in your mind’s eye because of what you hear that truly poisons the soul. Berberian Sound Studio aims (and succeeds) in doing exactly that. It’s a rare breed of creeping horror and certainly not for all audiences. It is, however, for the ones that recognize screams in Italian.