Looked at one way, Berberian Sound Studio is really a movie about a nice old British lady looking after some chiffchaff hatchlings in her garden. Periodically throughout the film, the woman’s son, Gilderoy, receives a letter from home, describing his mum’s adventures in bird-rearing. The letter isn’t narrated—by Gilderoy or his mother—so the audience has to read it to themselves as the camera pans slowly down, while the soundtrack plays the reel of comforting “sounds from home” that Gilderoy has brought with him to his new job in Italy. A grandfather clock ticks. Insects chirp. Leaves rustle. Bells chime. It’s almost as though the audience, like Gilderoy, has been transported to England, in the middle of a country summer day, surrounded by adorably helpless baby birds. That is, until the chicks get ripped apart by magpies.
The power of suggestion to conjure up images and provoke emotion is a trick Berberian Sound Studio pulls over and over for 90 minutes, sometimes to delightfully witty effect, and sometimes cruelly. (And sometimes tediously, to be completely honest.) Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a shy sound-effects expert best known for his work on nature documentaries and children’s shows, who in the early 1970s is invited to lend a hand on one of those weird, bloody Italian thrillers classified as “giallo.” The project is called The Equestrian Vortex, and it’s an occult drama about fetching young riding-academy students encountering the vengeful spirits of tortured medieval witches. So within minutes of his arrival at the studio, Gilderoy is watching women get hacked to pieces on a movie screen, while strange, long-haired men stand next to him, chopping up watermelon in front of a microphone. When the murder scene is finished, one of those watermelon-choppers hands Gilderoy a slice of the fruit, as though initiating him into a cult. Or perhaps that’s just how it seems to Gilderoy.
Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t have much of a plot. Writer-director Peter Strickland builds suspense out of the mundane: Gilderoy worries that he’s never going to get paid (which means he’ll never be able to afford to leave), and he watches as the people who run the studio argue loudly in a language he doesn’t speak, about issues that have clearly been festering for some time. In the absence of real terror, Strickland creates a sense of mounting dread by playing around with the raw components of filmmaking. Berberian Sound Studio never shows a frame of The Equestrian Vortex (outside of the opening credits); instead, the movie hints at what Gilderoy is watching, through sound and the descriptions in his work-notes. Strickland extends that notion of representational meaning by having Gilderoy follow the saga of his mum’s hatchlings from thousands of miles away, and by sensuously photographing the contours of those fruits and vegetables Gilderoy substitutes for women’s bodies in foley. Berberian experiments with what minimal elements it takes to get an audience involved with a scene. Are a few color-coded scribbles on graph paper and the sound of tomatoes in a blender enough to convey the visceral horror of a massacre?
Just when Berberian Sound Studio seems to have made every possible move it can—about half an hour after its gimmick is starting to feel played-out—Strickland abandons what little narrative he had to begin with and goes all-out freaky, mimicking Jones’ deteriorating mental state. From the start, Gilderoy understands what a bad situation he’s stumbled into, as his bosses snap at him for complaining about his work conditions, and as they push around the actresses they’ve hired to do screams and overdubs. But by the end, Gilderoy’s plight has become more abstract, as he begins to hallucinate (?) that he’s in a movie, being attacked by knife-wielding femmes fatale, before the image on the screen sputters, fragments, and melts, and Gilderoy is destroyed by cinema itself.
Ultimately, Berberian Sound Studio is just an exercise in meta—a movie more about generating sensations than making sense—but it’s provocative and effective in the way it shows how a movie doesn’t have to be “real” to be disturbing. Gilderoy looks just as creepy spattered with tomato juice as he would covered in blood; an over-amplified noise and extreme close-up of an eye are just as unnerving as a scream and a wound. In one of Berberian Sound Studio’s best scenes, Gilderoy entertains the crew during one of the studio’s frequent power outages by coaxing ethereal sounds out of his tools and props, spinning an enchanting mood by candlelight. It’s a sweet demonstration of what movies can do through fakery and flicker. Then the lights come back on, the spell is broken, and Gilderoy goes back to a much less charming game of make-believe.