With the beginning of the talkies in the 1930’s cinema changed forever. Suddenly events could be heard but not seen, and the path to the emotions became clearer as suddenly sound had three levels to play with, the dialogue, the score and the foley. What we’ve learnt since is that it’s often how these layers intersect that can define your cinematic experience. Good directors know this, people like David Lynch and Sergio Leonne have made it an art form, a deep sonic experience that is as playful as it is affecting and elevates their films exponentially.
Berberian Sound studio is fascinating in that it is simultaneously a homage to the sound design of the past and a claustrophobic, somewhat surrealistic psychological thriller.
“Come this way, don’t be afraid, a new world of sound awaits you,” offers the mysterious producer Francesco when the cherubic faced English sound designer Gilderoy arrives in Rome to work on a sadistic horror film.
“Strike a light man,” what’s he doing to her,” Gilderoy says on his first screening, as the assistants provide the sound effects by smashing watermelons with sledgehammers.
Gilderoy is the naïve fish out of water. He lives with his mother who writes sweet letters to him about birds nesting in their roof. Until he arrived he had no knowledge of the true nature of the film, now here he is confronted by its sadistic violence and brutality.
In his apartment he makes the sound of chainsaw cutting through flesh via a blender and tomato juice. It spurts out and it hits him in the head looking like a hyper red wound from an Argento Giallo. Actresses wheeze and scream operatically from the sound booth. Gilderoy stabs a cabbage.
The director, Santini is strange and enigmatic, surely a nod to Italian goremeister Dario Argento, bristling when Gilderoy refers to the film as horror. In Santini’s eyes he’s making transgressive art. The producer, Francesco is watchful, at times openly hostile. Actors are furtive, “You need to ask yourself why they hired you,” suggests one. Gilderoy is overwhelmed, operating in a world far outside his comfort zone. He becomes insular and retreats into the sound, taking his tapes home, listening to scenes endlessly. Eventually they blur together, Gilderoy, the film, his sound work all become indistinguishable. And it’s the soundtrack that becomes the connection.
All the while Gilderoy’s anxiety grows.
“Are there going to be more scenes like this? I’m sorry, these interrogations,” he shrugs his shoulders futilely, eyes pleading with Santini.
It’s the work of UK director Peter Strickland, a real love letter to sound from days gone by, a celebration of Italian slasher films of the 70’s, of an analogue tape based approach and fetishising old fx boxes, and foley techniques. In fact we never actually see the film, aside from a suitably over the top animated credits sequence. All that we know about the film comes from sound, from Gilderoy’s reactions, from his sound maps.
Sonically it’s nothing short of remarkable, one long music concrete piece, crisp, beautiful, playful and disconcerting. It’s the perfect soundtrack to disconnection, paranoia and alienation.
Berberian Sound Studio is an incredible achievement. Strickland unsurprisingly has a history with music, forming a music culinary group Sonic Catering Band in 1996, utilising elements of field recordings, sound poetry and modern classical music. Here in his second feature he has crafted a truly unique vision, or perhaps vision is the wrong word. Rather it’s a unique sonic environment, where sound is simultaneously the subject, the plot instigator and a self-conscious mechanism of manipulation. Despite the fact that Gilderoy is ostensibly creating sound for another film, the results of his experiments are still profoundly unsettling and disturbing, not to mention fascinating. It’s very very clever. While it reveals the underbelly of film sound, it can’t help but use these very approaches and techniques on you.
It’ll come as no surprise that Berberian Sound Studio scooped the pool at the recent British Independent Film Awards, picking up four gongs including best director for Strickland, best actor for Toby Jones as Gilderoy, and the production team won best achievement in production and best technical achievement.
Thurs 27th of Dec – Sun 13 Jan – ACMI.