Berberian Sound Studio is a film that, on some meta-narrative-sub-plot level, deals with violation. Its a contemptuous word, making a scientific practise, an cold, clinical “-ation”, out of the “vile”; which has seen cinema goers “treated” to the whole messy spectrum of traumatised survivors, to psychotic sadists with some truly horrific examples of “art” in between. For further reading, look no further than either of the I Spit on your Grave films, the first rather mind-bogglingly given the alternative name Day of the Woman. Because after near-on an hour of gratuitous gang-rape, it can only be called liberating that the victim gets her revenge in some imaginatively crude style, including death by anal-shotgun-rape. Don’t bother crying spoiler. I just saved you two hours of tedious nausea.
Now, I’m doing a disservice to Berberian Sound Studio to suggest that it is anywhere near as poorly conceived, written or executed as either ISOYG film. But its peculiar that they are the analogy I’m drawn to. Because I left the cinema, bemused as to whether I actually liked the film or not, without realising that this film is not about the story, or the profundity of the ideas at large. It is truly an exploitation movie that seeks to, and succeeds, in violating one’s apprehension of the outside world. In other words, I was fine in the cinema- but stepping into Bristol’s city centre scared the shit out of me afterwards.
It does this through the medium of sound. Its very, very effective. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a master craftsman in the world of foley art, the obscure voice by which our talkie cinema communicates. Until you have seen it in action its very difficult to believe your ears- a veritable holocaust of vegetable matter (and no chicken carcasses or steaks are used- director Peter Strickland is a committed vegetarian) is employed to squelch, crunch and pulp through a messy giallo horror film, set in deepest, most idiosyncratic Italy. Jones is, quite simply, magnificent- one of the most inhibited displays of vulnerability you are ever likely to see, that is time and again mistaken by his continental employers as a subversive British “huggy-kissy” phobia. The truth appears very much darker, as Jones is exploited by everyone around him, to the point where even letters from his adoring Mum become lines in a screenplay bent on squeezing every drop of trauma out of him.
The predominantly Italian cast form a totalitarian pastiche that succeeds a both as a comedy foil for the piece, and ultimately its dark alienation that leaves the audience as isolated as Gilderoy. They are self-proclaimed auteurs, preaching a gospel of unremitting honesty in their work that thinly masks the exploitation and violation of contracts, relationships and psyches that seems to be the sole direction of their work. Strickland’s move of genre-brilliance is to have the film in question, some strange front of Equestrian Vortices and rapacious witch-trials, playing in tandem, but never seen by the audience. The only titles to the film are the crimson slasher sequence that marks Gilderoy’s introduction to the film. The rest is narrated by an unseen editor, who informs the participants in driest monotone of the bizarre, outrageous events about to be screened- illustrated only through Gilderoy’s ever-more-inventive sound effects, that involves the massacre of an entire allotment of vegetables. The whole thing is hilarious. Every flash of the subtitles drew laughs from the audience. However, and this is where the film’s true genius appears, those laughs are tempered by sustained and gradual tension that builds to an unbearable level of threat. The best example is the sequqnce where Jones must simulate the tearing-out of a screaming witch’s hair with the help of a garden-centre’s worth of radishes. An unprecedented dichotomy of absurd humour and gratuitous sadism is inflicted upon the viewer, but this is the viewer’s making and not any individual element on screens. The whole sequence is a masterclass in editing, delicately weighted shots lingering on radishes that suffer to the sound of virginal screams, flamboyant Italians bringing fresh supplies from the market, and vats of wasted, mouldering vegetables.
- Peter Strickland owes the immense production savings to his tireless sound engineer, Brian, and cabbage body double Melissa
Indeed, it is the film’s editorial mastery that makes this thing work so effectively. Visually, the film is choppy. It does not weave a coherent narrative. There are plot holes and threads that seem to be deliberately worked loose, but never re-tied. The gorgeous mechanical intricacies of the projector, and the glowering demand of SILENZIO from the studio warning light intrude into the film in an erratic fashion, that seems to disrupt our enjoyment of Gilderoy’s work for repeated scenes in his shabby apartment, working late into the night or sleeping. But this is the intended effect, it transpires, as the choppy editorial style masks a brazen and shocking twist that pulls the rug out from under everybody’s feet. Suddenly we are cut off from even Gilderoy, who is, in one simple but magnificent disruption of language, cut off from us. The film starts again, but the English elements, the Foley elements, are absent- they have become part of the film that suddenly our technicians are merely characters to be exploited in. It is as if an additional layer of celluloid has began to run through the projector, and what was an immersive cinematic experience is turned into a dark mirror, exploiting our reliance on subtitles to make us, the audience, the victims of the film’s sadism- suffering the grotesqueries of incomplete sound effects, broken screams and pulped vegetables knitted together by Gilderoy’s meticulous charts, broken by his transgression from craftsman to character.
The sense of editorial displacement, the sense that things aren’t right, aren’t completed, make up the most powerful elements. The most horrific parts, for this is on some level a horror film, lie in the inside view Strickland offers of arresting cinema not yet completed- how a melange of disparate sounds and effects make a coherent sense of action on screen, and how those elements disjointed become literally torturous. The the climactic low-point occurs at an otherwise unimportant point in the film-within-the-film, a base violation of a sexual act that levels Gilderoy literally unable to complete. The soundtrack is ready aside from the rank significance the film applies to the sound of sizzling oil against a backdrop of screams, with a moment of silence left for that sound to work its black magic. And every time, Jones misses the cue. A dreadful, silent second is broken by the sounds of the “victim”, while the real victim stands paralysed, his mind doing what the film could not and actually creating the sounds, sights, smells, feelings which can only be imagined. Once again, it is the audience’s mind that is left to fill in the gaps, and once again it is the audience’s mind that proves its own masochistic torturer.
The film ends, abruptly- I anticipated it ending, simply because I felt there was nothing more Strickland could wring out of the concept. The film felt like it had ran out of steam. Jones’ character is so totally isolated from us that you worry that you’ll struggle to care about him any more. The credits roll, and people are unsure whether to move or not. I had watched Toby Jones aurally assault himself, manipulated and eventually violated by studio system that he repeatedly insists he has no desire or right to be part of. I was bemused, to say the least.
Until I stepped out of the Watershed, and into the hustling dark of Bristol city centre. The assault of sound, uninhibited and enveloping, was overwhelming. I was due to meet friends for drinks nearby and I had to stop and try and get a grip of myself. I felt like I was being assaulted by unrefined, unedited sound. It was genuinely disconcerting and left me feeling absolutely isolated in the centre of the City- being Bristol born and bred, that is a novel and unpleasant experience. After joining my friends; noisy, chatty, pressing drinks and suggestions for a night out on me, I was struck by what I feel was Strickland’s deeper intent. Berberian Sound Studio is narratively indistinct, thematically obscure, but that isn’t a negative criticism. Its all about the effect- the delayed “gratification” of the horror film, not the hackneyed punt at a nightmare, but a genuine subversion of our expectations and ideas of how sense affects us- disrupting our reliance on narrative and visual stimulus, manipulating our interpretation of sound to relocate the sense and questions of violation that cinema has long asked of its performers- onto us, its willing victims.