Steeped in the sexual and violent films coming out of Italy in the 1970s, collectively known as Giallo, Berberian Sound Studio is a confused and frustrating mess, which sees writer/director Peter Strickland on one hand seem to want to celebrate the genre, while on the other, want to look down at it.
Toby Jones plays a character called Gilderoy, an English Sound Effects artist who flies out to Italy to work on the audio track of a fictional Giallo film, The Equestrian Vortex. Initially, uncertain about working on something so violent and disturbing, his mind starts to unravel as he gets sucked into the oppressive world of the studio, and the images and noises facing him every day; can he keep his sanity and make it back home in one piece?
A good chunk of Berberian Sound Studio is based around Gilderoy and his interactions with the film crew. The contrast between the outgoing, garrulous and tactile Italians and the shy, repressed and awkward Englishman are played for laughs, with polyester shirts, big moustaches and testosterone on one side, and meekness, hesitancy, and cardigans on the other. The differences are there to provide tension, via the dramatic staple of the fish out of water and this starts to build from awkward comedy into more sinister mind games, with Gilderoy trapped and penniless, forced to stay and finish the film. Frustratingly, these are never properly resolved, as the film breaks down into David Lynch style weirdness before fizzling out, as if Strickland had simply run out of ideas. A shame, as Toby Jones delivers a great performance, giving the dorky and awkward Gilderoy, a likeable vulnerability.
Aside from Jones, there are some things to enjoy, at least for genre fans and audiophiles. For the former, a host of in-jokes, from the opening credits of the fake film, The Equestrian Vortex, a perfect and believable parody with its lurid animated credits and prog-rock soundtrack, to the studio projectionist, who remains unseen apart from his black gloves, and the end credits which list Suzy Kendall as "special guest screamer".
For the latter, the other big star, apart from Jones, is the sound itself. Screams, gongs, squashed fruit and vegetables, and, eerie singing are recorded and then manipulated and distorted into a disorienting cacophony. Very cleverly, the origins of the sound are obscured or played around with, blurring the line between the soundtrack of the fake film, the soundtrack of the film that we are watching, and soundtrack going on in the head of Gilderoy.
Unfortunately, Berberian Sound Studio does not give us anything other than clever, and disappointingly, considering the genre the film is set in, we also get no real horror, of either the psychological or cheap shock kind. Instead, we get a lot of, at times, fascinating, disturbing and baffling sounds and images, that ultimately add up to nothing.
Ultimately, Strickland seems to want to have it both ways, celebrating the outre elements of the Giallo genre, but then suddenly seeming to remember that by contrast, Berberian Sound Studio is also a "proper" film, and that we are supposed to be tut-tutting at this trash for what it is doing to Gilderoy and his morality and mental state. By the way if you are not sure what it is doing, the repeated close ups of the rotting vegetables used as sound effects for the violent on-screen deaths MIGHT GIVE YOU A VERY SUBTLE CLUE.