Melons are thwacked to pieces. Light bulbs are dragged down the length of wire coils to emit the eerie sounds of a UFO. Women scream in terror. Cabbages are stabbed.
You haven’t seen this film before.
The 1970s. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a down-at-heel British sound technician – a master at his job – who travels to Italy to make the sound effects for a Giallo horror film. He’s often at odds with his quixotic (or more precisely, Lucio Fulci-esque) director Santini, and financially-challenged producer (Gilderoy’s pay check is always Just Coming, Soon). He quite likes the look of the indecently comely receptionist. She does not return the compliment. And then there are those troubling letters from mother … or is his mind fraying?
Berberian Sound Studio is a piece of film-making perfection. It runs on dream resonance, not narrative logic. Suffused with a creeping dread, it’s not precisely horror: more a wilful deconstruction of horror. If that all sounds vaguely David Lynchian, you’d be right – but not in the way you think. The film is nothing like a Lynch film, but shares the American auteur’s ability to play the audience like a fiddle and never cleave to cinematic conventions. It will also leave you wonderously bewildered, trying to piece things together.
You’d expect a film about sound design to have magnificently crafted sound itself, and Berberian Sound Studio is crisp, squelchy, and gleefully manipulative. It’s matched by evocative set design: last year’s superb Tinker Tailor Solider Spy rendered the 70s as beige and grimy, here they are restored to smoky, noirish glamour. The film also fizzes with absurd wit. Women in sound booths are provided motivation to record their screams: “I think the general consensus is a red-hot poker in a woman’s vagina is an intense experience.” To the men in the booth: “You are menacing. You are a dangerously aroused goblin.” Despite the streak of mordant humour, however, the film is constantly in control of tone, flitting easily from smirks to shudders.
As the tightly wound Gilderoy, Toby Jones is, as ever, brilliant, his unease gradual and gripping. Jones’ performances are always so natural they look effortless, but he deserves plaudits for this. In the role of the aloof receptionist, Tonia Sotiropoulou is improbably beautiful, a screen siren to rival Ava Gardner.
Two years ago Katalin Varga, director Peter Strickland’s first film, made great waves at film festivals world wide, a startlingly original tale of a rape-revenge fantasy. He was touted as one to look out for. Here, he has surpassed himself. The Red Curtain doubts it will see a better film all year. Sublimely stylish, utterly assured, sexy mind-fuckery.
The Guardian has an exclusive clip: Berberian Sound Studio.