After watching a film every film buff confronts the thumps-up or thumps-down moment. It’s rather unusual, at least rare, while he remains confused to decide one among them, not sure which of it might be more appropriate! Just after the end credits started to roll in the screen, in Peter Strickland’s ‘Berberian Sound Studio’, my thoughts were set in oscillation.
Set in the seventies, British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is hired to work in an Italian film arrives at the Berberian sound studio in the opening of the film. He is greeted with not so polite and dominating Francesco, the producer of the film. Right from the beginning the film adorns an eerie atmosphere where the mood is completely constructed with sounds and assisted by unusual extreme close-ups of objects. The actual film which Gilderoy is working at is hardly shown to the viewer, except a frame or two that flash and vanish rapidly, but all we get to see is something like the behind the film scenes. Since the entire plot is spun around Gilderoy and his work in the studio, the movie on the whole wears the look of the making-of-the-film footage like look.
The soft spoken Gilderoy feels alienated from the start inside the studio, and his face permanently shows it up all through the movie. The intention of the director seems to capture the technicalities behind the making of a film rather than showing the film itself. The camera for most of the time swims very close to the sound mixers and Gilderoy’s hands swirling the knobs in them with eyes often staring at the work sheets and the feverishly ticking analog meters’ pointers.
Shortly after working in the film he understands he is working not in an Italian movie about horses as he assumed it to be, but actually in an Italian ‘giallo’ film. (A sleazy horror film sub genre popular in the 70s) He feels sick of the frames unfolding on screen and soon wishes to depart from the project but the arrogant producer Francesco doesn’t let him go. Through Silvia, a session artist who renders her voice, he comes to know about the sexual exploitations of Santini, the director of the film. Santini also declines Gilderoy’s referring his film as a horror film, and insists his work as brutally honest.
The protagonists fervent requests to reimburse his air fare is repeatedly declined and at one point its completely denied stating that the flight he claims to have come to Italy doesn’t exist at all. From here the film turns more bizarre and the rest of the film becomes more erratic. Slowly the audience witness Gilderoy’s mind slipping into his work leading to mental chaos and his personal reality and the fiction he is working at, begin to blend. At the climatic sequences despite power cut the projector in the studio throws white lights and voices filling up the screen and he seem to get into the film itself.
Like the character Santini says his’ is not a horror film, this film actually isn’t a horror flick. It has its thrills and chills- mostly achieved by the eerie sound track (even the composer’s name that flashes for a moment in the open credits is bizarre) – this is certainly not a horror. Though this work is tagged as a psychological thriller- in fact it is- the narrative never bothers to explain the behavior of the characters, hence they remain void and their erratic behaviors lack purpose. The overall plot lacks narrative logic and the viewer whose hows –and-whys remain unanswered. This keeps us disconnected from the film.
Yet, this film is a must watch, I might say, for it helps one understand the quintessential role of sound in cinema and the way they can add depth to the movie images that flash on the screens. There are many moments in the film where we hear the sounds, which seem mismatched to the unfolding mundane visuals inside the studio, it does create a tension and add mysterious flavor to it.
Experience this film not for its narration or plot but for the power of sound that plays different chords in our psyche.