According to the Fantastic Fest program, Berberian Sound Studio promises to deliver “a bizarre atmospheric thriller that digs deep beneath the skin to probe giallo’s bloody beating heart.” That was enough to get me excited to see the film. Judging from the sold-out first screening to which I didn’t get a ticket, I was not alone. Later, the reaction of that first crowd – near-unanimously negative – only piqued my interest more.
If you’ve read Brian Collins’ recent review, you already know the plot: Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a milquetoast Foley artist used to working on placid nature documentaries in England, is summoned to Italy to create the soundscape for a horror film called The Equestrian Vortex. Gilderoy is as mild-mannered as giallo is violent, and he’s initially aghast as he’s tasked with providing just the right sounds for, say, a witch having her hair ripped out, or a red hot poker being shoved into a woman’s vagina. (Here’s probably a good place to mention we never see any of The Equestrian Vortex, save for a completely awesome animated title sequence.)
Gilderoy’s timidity is his defining trait: he tries to stand up to the film’s bullying producer (Cosimo Fusco), but he can’t. He tries to quit, but he can’t. He can’t even get reimbursed for his flight to Italy, shut down over and over by the studio’s chilly receptionist. With all this Italian shade being thrown at Gilderoy, for a spell I thought the film was approaching some kind of bigotry toward Italians, presented here as assholes, each and every one. The producer barks at Gilderoy nearly every time he talks, questioning or refuting everything our passive protagonist says or does. The director of The Equestrian Vortex (Antonio Mancino) is a big loud distraction, sexually harassing his female talent and bringing a barking dog into the studio during a recording. When one of the actresses, angry at the director’s unwelcome advances, erases all the tapes of her work, I realized the film isn't anti-Italian, it's anti-Gilderoy. And that's when it clicked: as his bizarre obstacles pile up and become increasingly random, I had no doubt I was watching someone’s frustrating, work-related anxiety dream. We’ve all had them, and the film absolutely nails the tangled tone of those dreams, in which the most mundane, simple tasks are constantly thwarted, tripped up in convoluted narrative quicksand. And like those dreams, Berberian Sound Studio isn’t always fun to get through. Subplots come and go, goals are not achieved, nothing happens. And in the last act frustration turns to confusion as all waking logic is finally abandoned.
It’s not a joyless trip by any means. As parts of a whole, everyone is doing really solid work. People have been praising Toby Jones, and while he’s fine the real fun is in watching the Italian crew (Fusco, especially), often hilarious in their hostility toward Gilderoy. Just about every scene is "fun" to watch: the camera often takes the position of the playback screen, creating the suggestion that the movie is watching the crew as they scream, moan, hiss and spit the horrific ADR cues. And these moments are keenly painted with lots of classic giallo imagery – bulging eyeballs, leather gloves, beautiful women, etc. The sumptuous visual and aural nods to Italian horror go a long way toward keeping the viewer on board for nearly 90 minutes of relative inactivity.
So no, this is not exactly a horror film, or a giallo, or a thriller. But it’s one of the most authentic recreations of the dream state that I’ve ever seen. Films are likened to dreams all the time; in that context, Berberian Sound Studio is about as literal-minded as you can imagine.