Today I’ll write about Berberian Sound Studio. I’ve looked forward to watch it because it made an important world tour of different established indie film festivals last year. But dont’ get fooled, this is not your usual horror movie, not at all. This is a british gem of indie filmmaking by Peter Strickland, some one who knows a thing or two about Italo giallo and horror movies from the heydays (the age of crazy titles such as “don’t torture a duckling” or the “bird with crystal plumage” or “the cat o’ nine tails“). What Peter has constructed is not easy to label, in fact is a film about filmmaking, a black comedy and an homage to a dead genre, it is not a horror movie per se, even though it features a good grade of paranoia and escalating sense of mystery.
Berberian is set sometime in the 70’s and follows Gilderoy, a socially awkward british foley artist which is hired by the titular italian studio to work on the soundscape for an exploitation movie named “il Vortice Equestre“. Having been working all life on documentaries for kids, Gilderoy, probably misled by the title of the film and lost in translation, agrees to work on Vortice without realizing what he would put himself into. Vortice Equestre does not have much to do with horses, is indeed a story about a coven of witches that is back from death to haunt a riding school; blood spills copious, dismemberments, tortures, atrocities and misogyny are involved, in the perfect tradition of italo horror features from the ’70s.)
Gilderoy since the beginning starts feeling out-of-place (in a studio where everyone speaks Italian and where no one is particularly happy to work with him, in a workplace where actresses are constantly under the unwanted attention of the unprofessional filmmaker, where dogs disturb the takings or where is always time to celebrate something), out of genre, and gradually out of mind in the very claustrophobic space of the studio and his bedroom (We, as viewers, could never tell that the action takes place in Italy as all the film is shot inside the lightly illuminated Berberian Sound Studio. This choice perfectly evokes the grade of obsession and dedication required when working on highly absorbing projects, everything else does not exists). All this sense of displacement raises as the fictional film in production is deteriorating Gilderoy’s mental status.
As a movie within a movie kind of film, Berberian plays effectively on different levels of perception. An example: the only thing the viewer sees about the fictional film is the opening titles sequence played shortly after the movie started, that tricks us into thinking those are the actual titles of Berberian (genial!).
This is a movie about a movie that we can only hear. The viewer don’t get to see any of the brutal murders from Il vortice but he can hear them. The sound of the butchering is produced in the studio by literally stabbing the cabbage, furiously chopping watermelons, frying oil in a pan or smashing rotten zucchini from an height (this is the sound of people dying on screen, this is the sound of a female genitalia being burned, the sound of a drowning….) In this way horror is only suggested, glimpsed but still sort of graphic and gross. For instance, in a close up scene, Gilderoy is throwing away the freshly killed cabbage on a mass of rotten vegetables that made their use and now are fermenting on the bottom of the garbage can (to give an idea of the pile of people killed in the Vortice). Who would ever thought that veggies were that important in horror filmmaking??
As stated before, not a single scene from il Vortice is shown in the film (except the titles) and so all the horror happens off screen, we know about its brutality by reading the sound charts (shown as they were paintings) or by hearing the Italian voiceovers describing the scene just seconds before Gilderoy start working on the sound and the mixing. Don’t expect a bloodthirsty witch or a goblin to ever appear onscreen (but after you watch the movie we can discuss about it).
The vortex is not only in the title of the film but is actually happening in Gilderoy’s life as he is being sucked into a mental spiral of paranoia and isolation and start hallucinating and such. Gilderoy is working maniacally, constantly isolated from the outside, inside a studio bunker where he spends most of the time isolated from the rest wearing earphones. The only contact with the world outside happens when he receives letters from his old mama, that is waiting him back at home, chronicling about a nest of chiffchaffs. As Gilderoy’s Italian situation is worsening also the news from home and the nest are progressively bad. Gilderoy (and us at some point) overpowered by paranoia and feeling of persecution won’t be able to tell real apart from fiction, worrying if he ever will be able to leave the studio (and get paid).
I was actually impressed by this little flick to watch with ears and hear with mind and eyes, cinema and reality blends into madness and the final is probably perfect or totally wrong. This is the sort of movie that goes under your skin more than you are able to admit.