A sound recordist’s ears start playing tricks on him in Berberian Sound Studio and genre-savvy viewers may similarly feel like they’re in a sort of echo chamber: This deftly directed meta-thriller doubles as a tribute to vintage Italian horror flicks.
Arriving in Rome to mix a low-budget shocker with the perfectly pretentious title of The Equestrian Vortex, ace British foley artist Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is very much a fish out of water. And he’s a cold fish at that. Where his Italian collaborators are hearty and gregarious, Gilderoy is clenched and uncomfortable. Lonely and frustrated, and in the clutches of a foreign culture, he plunges headlong into his assignment, which involves simulating the sounds of unthinkable violence against the human body with an unlikely array of props, including plenty of fresh produce to mimic authentically flesh-rending tones.
Peering out meekly from underneath his headphones, Gilderoy is a nebbish figure, but there comes a point when Berberian Sound Studio drops its comic pretenses and gets seriously sinister.
It is perhaps predictable that our hero will begin to lose himself in his work à la protagonists of Blow Out and The Conversations – two modern classics about embattled soundmen that writer-director Peter Strickland has obviously studied closely.
But where those movies revolved around shadowy political conspiracies, Berberian Sound Studio is first and foremost about cinema itself. More specifically, it examines how movies can heighten and even displace everyday reality for the people making it, as well as for the people watching it. We never see a frame from the occult-inflected giallo that Gilderoy is working on, and we don’t have to. Gradually, it becomes clear that he’s living it.
Gifted with his first real star turn since playing Truman Capote in Infamous, Jones contributes a superb performance. He’s believable as a man whose authoritative stance within a very specialized niche belies his status as a wallflower. Cosimo Fusco is very funny as The Equestrian Vortex’s producer Francesco, whose glad-handing arrogance shades into genuine malevolence. Berberian Sound Studio is finally all about those sorts of shifts: from comedy to horror; from meticulous sound effects to auditory hallucinations; from genre homage to critique and back again. Just as Gilderoy expertly fiddles with knobs en route to creating his sound effects, Strickland synthesizes his various cinematic influences into something wholly harmonious and original.