Lynch, Italian Style, by Kyle Anderson
Anyone who’s tried to make a student film will tell you that a movie’s sound, no matter how imperceptible, is what stands between amateur and professional. The amount of artificiality that goes into making a movie sound realistic is truly staggering, from foley to ADR to specially recorded and mixed ambient noise. In some cases, the film’s sound can be what truly makes it effective, and if it’s a horror film, those sounds can elicit cringes and shrieks, even if all they are are melons being stabbed or steaks being malleted. It is this premise that takes Toby Jones into a world of nightmares in the dreamily eerie Berberian Sound Studio, written and directed by Peter Strickland.
The film follows Gilderoy (Jones), a meek but talented sound engineer from the UK who is down on his luck and accepts a job working on an eccentric Italian director’s newest horror film, though he would never call it a horror film. Gilderoy knows no Italian and only understands about half of what everyone is telling him. His days are spent creating the horrible, terrifying sounds and recording all of the post-synced dialogue for the film, a witchcraft epic called The Equestrian Vortex. Being a rather repressed Englishman in the 1970s, Gilderoy is completely unprepared for the Italian way of doing things, which is often brash and loud. He’s met with disdain when he asks to be paid what he was promised, being told repeatedly that it’s not polite to talk about money. Slowly, through this experience, the lines between horror film and real life begin to blur both for our hero and for the audience.
The first thing that can be said about the movie is that the sound design is amazing, which you’d expect from a film about sound. The only bit of the film being made we ever actually see is the bombastic, pop-art opening titles; otherwise, it’s just shots of Gilderoy watching the footage as he and the other sound people create the horrific, violent sounds. They’re played very loudly and often so as to unnerve the audience as much as the main character. Berberian Sound Studio is unrated, but I could see it getting an R if submitted to the MPAA, despite there not being one bit of actual violence or bad language (not in English anyway). It’s completely due to the tone set by the filmmaker and the sound effects, which sound incredibly violent, even though we see how each of them is made. That’s how effective they are.
The movie has a very David-Lynchian feel. It starts out and there’s a storyline and eventually, as Gilderoy becomes more and more immersed in the world, this fades away and we get many more slow shots of things (like microphones and blinking red lights) with constant humming on the soundtrack. There is also a certain point at which we stop hearing Gilderoy speaking English and he starts conversing with people in Italian. But, like the film they’re making, it’s post-synchronized Italian. The actors are still actually speaking English but what we hear is Italian. It’s unsettling to say the least.
There is also a sequence which is truly terrifying, where Gilderoy is awakened from sleep in his modest Rome bedsit by one of The Equestrian Vortex’s murderous witches, wielding a large knife. He fights her off as best he can and the struggle becomes quite destructive. We see this play out entirely in silence, no sound at all. Then we see Gilderoy and his boss watching the footage of him being attacked, and then we see the scene a third time with the sound added back in. The feeling it gives the audience is one of being ill at ease, to say the least, though nothing actually happens. Four older people attending the same press screening as I got up and left at about this point, perhaps because they couldn’t handle the weirdness and soundscape.
Berberian Sound Studio is a very odd movie with an amazing sense of itself and a fantastic central performance from Toby Jones. Fans of Italian giallo filmmakers like Mario Bava or Dario Argento will recognize and appreciate the non-specific references, but fans of movie creation in general will find much to enjoy. However, to merely say it’s a movie about sound or a movie about the making of a horror film is to underrate the craftsmanship of the craziness of the dreamy and nightmarish imagery and stereophonic thrills. It’s a movie that has to be seen, and more than that, heard, to be believed.