BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is, on the surface, a most unusual effort from a British film-maker. With both English and Italian dialogue and an entirely foreign cast except for Toby Jones, who delivers an astonishing performance, it is – and in the best possible way – a most elegant looking tribute from an immensely talented fanboy in Peter Strickland to not only genre, but the very mechanics of film-making. The title alone is a nod to Cathy Berberian, the late American soprano and composer.
Jones portrays sheepish, mild-mannered British foley artist Gilderoy, who ventures from his rural habitat of Dorking, where he makes nature documentaries, to the cloying gloom of a recording studio in Italy, where he is tasked to work on a particularly strange supernatural horror film by the name of The Equestrian Vortex. Despite a warm welcome, Gilderoy soon bears the enormous weight of pressure from the film's producer and its pretentious director Santini, who claims that, regardless of the blood, guts, knives and chainsaws, he is not making a horror movie, but high art. The recordist 2works tirelessly to perfect the film at the behest of his increasingly demanding employers, spending all day listening to the harrowing howls of scream queens lending their voices to on-screen deaths, and hacking away at vegetables to create the effect of hapless victims being stabbed and sliced to pieces. Soon, this process becomes almost cathartic as the job eats away at him psychologically and has a damning effect on his state of mind. Or does it?
The ostensible protagonist's only connection to the world outside of the claustrophobic studio comes in the form of handwritten letters from his mother that may only be having a damaging effect on his fragility, triggering deeper homesickness through memories and turning momentary daydreams into agonising pastoral longing. Home is where the heart is, and it is evident early on that he has undertaken a job that will only serve to be disheartening. There is no taste of Italy's natural beauty, no whoosh of fresh air, nor any awe-inspiring sights, only the dark, dull and dry recording studio and an escalating sense of dread.
It is sensual overload: a feast for the eyes and a bubble bath for the ears. Its vivid, dreamlike cinematography works almost harmonically with the masterful use of sound. It is engrossing and captivating in such a way that, had it not looked so delicious, so thick with mood and atmosphere, you could imagine just listening to the film, eyes closed, and being almost as gripped.
In much the same way that Dario Argento injected his colourfully unique brand of cinematic sleaze with such artistic integrity (an oxymoron if there ever was one), Strickland has built an incredibly refined, very beautiful film from dubious foundations; one that is rich with detail and intricately constructed.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is far from a straightforward film. While it wears its inspiration on its sleeve as a tightly woven love letter to gialli, in doing so it wears a kind of armour that will make it impenetrable to mainstream audiences. Its shlock roots have become fine art, and if you, too, share Strickland's appreciation and knowledge of Italy's blood-spattered crime genre, a veritable treasure chest of subtle references buried within awaits you in what is perhaps the purest, smartest horror film of the year.
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