Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones
Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is an exercise in how to strike terror into the heart of the viewer without spilling a single drop of blood or even showing a single act of horrific violence. We don't see the horror, but we hear plenty of it as it occurs just beyond our view and begins to drive our protagonist a little bit crazy. The film revolves around a narrative gimmick, but it's a gimmick that works because Strickland assembles it so well and because it doesn't wear out its welcome. At a brisk 94 minutes, Berberian Sound Studio is a film that demonstrates restraint in more ways than one and demonstrates how less truly can sometimes be more.
Set in the 1970s, Berberian Sound Studio works to adopt the look and feel of the psychological horror films of that era as it follows Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound engineer about to descend into his own personal circle of hell. Known for his work on nature documentaries, Gilderoy is shocked when he arrives in Italy and learns that, rather than the film about horses that he was expecting to work on, he has been hired for an Italian giallo film. Essentially trapped as soon as he arrives by the fact that the film's producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), keeps putting him off about payment, stalling even on reimbursing Gilderoy for his expenses to fly to Italy, Gilderoy resigns himself to working on the picture. Made to do Foley work using vegetables to create sound effects for the film's scenes of torture and murder, bullied by Francesco, inadvertently making enemies by stepping on the toes of other members of the production, having to bear witness to backstage drama as the film's director chases and disposes of the female session artists working on the soundtrack's voiceovers, and feeling increasingly disconnected from his real life, Gilderoy becomes more withdrawn and more on edge.
Throughout his stay, Gilderoy is kept apprised of the goings on at home by letters from his mother, who is enchanted by the discovery of nest of young Chiffchaff in the yard and writes to her son about their progress. The happy tone of her letters is in stark contrast to the growing despair of her son, who begins seeing things and hearing things at night, and is deeply affected by the disturbing images he sees on screen as he does his work. Eventually Gilderoy (and the film, it seems) breaks and suddenly he is a character in an Italian film, speaking the language which has eluded him until this point (and adopting a persona of indifference that mirrors that of Francesco) and created a further barrier between himself and those around him, and agreeing to torture a voiceover artist to push her into giving a performance which will satisfy Francesco. As the film winds towards its conclusion, the question is no longer whether Golderoy is losing himself, but whether he's so far gone that he can never be recovered.
Strickland relies heavily on the power of suggestion in Berberian Sound Studio, never showing us any of the film that Gilderoy is working on (aside from the opening credits sequence), but getting the effect of the horror scenes playing out on screen across through the descriptions of scenes from an engineer whose job is to put them in context for the voiceover and Foley artists - his dry detachment as he describes the murder and torture about to take place making it even more effective - and by showing the Foley artists and Gilderoy at work using fruits and vegetables to imitate the sounds of heads being pummeled and split open, of bodies being torn apart and guts torn out (I'd have to watch again and pay a little closer attention, but I'm certain that the film's sound effects place increasing emphasis on the juiciness of the food as the film goes on and Gilderoy becomes more and more despairing). We see nothing of what's happening on screen, but we're made to feel as if we're watching right along with Gilderoy who, despite being someone who works behind the scenes in film and knows better than any regular viewer that it's all just smoke and mirrors and make believe, is nevertheless deeply affected by what he sees, to the point that he declares that he's unable to work on the project any longer. Unfortunately for him, he's trapped and he has to keep going, and the fact that Berberian Sound Studio never leaves that tiny studio once it gets there adds to the feeling of claustrophobia and confinement that so begins to torment Gilderoy.
Those feelings are deepened by Jones' performance, which has Gilderoy retreating further and further into himself as his situation becomes more unbearable. While never a physically imposing presence on screen, Jones draws back even further by making Gilderoy so meek and mild that the suffering he endures, both as a result of his fracturing mental state and the treatment he receives from others at the studio, seems all the more horrific, even as Jones begins to put edges on the performance. It's a great performance, and it needs to be because the film's focus and point of view is so narrow as a result of being tied to Gilderoy and his psychological state. The other characters are barely characters at all, really, and more just shadows who cast a sinister aspect on what Gilderoy is experiencing at any given moment. As well crafted as Strickland's gimmick is, he needs Jones to come through on a performance level to make this work, and Jones definitely doesn't leave him hanging. While Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps a minor work of modest ambition, it can't be said that Strickland and Jones don't put everything into achieving that ambition; the film may be slight, but it's great in its slightness.