Films about filmmaking are one of the more robust themes to span across cinema. From SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE PLAYER to SCREAM 3, these films give us insight into the filmmaking process, while driving ahead plot, song and dance, drama and intrigue, and horror. Though no one in their right mind would ever accuse filmmakers of being lacking in vanity, I don’t think that is the only reason for making films about filming. Directors know that no matter how diverse the audience, the collective love for cinema is what has brought them together. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO plays off a more specific love for 1970s Italian horror cinema, and also drives the audience forward with a confounding plot.
The film, directed by Peter Strickland and starring Toby Jones, does much more than simply give the audience an inside look at filmmaking. The film focuses on Jones’s Gilderoy—an overly polite Brit who has come to Italy for the promise of work. Gilderoy is a sound engineer, and apparently quite a good one, who has been brought there by the Italian director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to rescue the audio on his latest thriller. Gilderoy is physically uncomfortable being there. Everything from his language, to his dress, to his work ethic sets him apart from the casual Italians.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO spends a fair amount of time in the first half of the film showcasing what a sound engineer does to create the audio design for a film. We see Gilderoy and his two local assistants create the foley effects for the film within this film. What was a witch getting stabbed by a rival on screen is actually a cabbage getting attacked by Gilderoy, with impeccable timing. He walks on sand, sets things aflame, and slaughters more produce than you can imagine. All of this mock violence, performed in an aging and dark sound studio, adds to the heavy atmosphere that BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO creates. The studio is filled with rotting vegetables, and often has screaming women rerecording their characters’ tortured screams in a booth. It is not a comfortable place.
It is this cinematic atmosphere that sets BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO apart from other films about filmmaking. Gilderoy is a fish out of water in Italy. He is uneasy all the time, and being surrounded by screaming women doesn’t help. The studio seems innocuous enough, but as the film goes on, Gilderoy does not ease into his environment. Rather, he becomes more alienated and withdrawn.
Gilderoy is a peculiar character, too. He lives alone in his rented room, spending nights listening to various recordings and corresponding with his mother back in England. Though she pleads with Gilderoy to return, he cannot afford to, as the sound studio manager has yet to pay him. These nights in Gilderoy’s room show us that while his circumstances seemed unfortunate at first, it is unclear if all well outside of the studio.
The first half of BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is undoubtedly an interesting look in to the world of sound engineering and Gilderoy’s life. The second half, however, is where the film really begins to shine. It takes a drastic turn towards the surreal, and the reality that Gilderoy occupies turns out to be more like that of the film he is working on.
Just as films about filmmaking appeal to cinefiles, Strickland makes the assumption that his audience will appreciate his departure from narrative cinema. Strickland plays off of his audience’s very specific preference for surreal horror, as the film wanders towards the structure and style of an absurdist horror film. As a fan of Argento, I was happy to screen BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO with its promise of 1970’s Italian horror, and receptive to a film that mimics Argento’s non-linear visuals and plot.
The change in the film’s course is rapid and almost unexpected, but it serves two solid purposes. First, it lets the audience understand Gilderoy’s experience. The alienation and possible gas lighting that he has been going through feel real when the audience is put through the same experience in relation to the film’s presented reality. Second, the film shifts away from being a film about making a horror film, and becomes an actual horror film.
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO features superb direction and performances as well as an acute awareness of its audience. In our current era of creating films for a wide audience, with over exposition, and dumbing down plot lines, it is refreshing to see a film that knew what I hoped for, even before I anticipated it.