There are many aspects to making a film – the actors, the script, the director, the music – but there is another aspect many people forget about: the sound mix. The process of combining an actor’s dialogue and the music with the ambient noises and sound effects is an art in its own right, but when doing so for a film filled with murders and hauntings, this process becomes all the more compelling and off-putting.
The Berberian Sound Studio is located in Italy, and English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) makes the trip to help create the mix for a pulp film from the eccentric director, Santini (Antonio Mancino). On the surface, a man coming to a new country may seem like a story about learning from different cultures and their various creative personalities, but the narrative takes a decidedly sinister turn when the sounds Gilderoy is creating for the film seem to follow him from his recording sessions into his actual life.
Despite the fact that the majority of Berberian Sound Studio takes place in the studio, we never see a single frame of the film they are creating these cringe-worthy sounds for. While each scene is described before the recording begins — and they become increasingly comical due to their outrageous content — the only indication of their affect is Gilderoy’s reaction to the images, going so far as to try and actually get out of being a part of the process.
Never quite welcomed into the fold and constantly dodged when he brings up reimbursement for his flight, Gilderoy tries to keep his head down and work with the different artists that come through the studio, from the scream-worthy actresses to the stone-faced Foley artists who flinch at neither the graphic images on screen nor the mechanics behind sounds adding to them. But when Gilderoy’s method of travel is pulled into question and portions of his letters from home start popping up in the plot of the film he is working on, you begin to wonder if Gilderoy may be trapped in a horror film of his own.
Gilderoy is a quiet and reserved man, accused of being too polite (a stark contrast to the more outgoing and passionate Italians), but when his work starts to bleed into his subconscious it becomes hard not to question just how sensitive and susceptible he truly is. When the production loses it’s leading lady and the director’s true nature and intentions are brought to light, the line between the film and the lives of those creating it becomes increasingly blurred.
Seeing how different everyday actions from chopping vegetables to boiling water to pouring oil into a hot pan are the actions behind these scary sounds is both interesting and compelling to watch, but the disjointed story surrounding their creation begins to take away from their overall effect. Jones turns in an impressive performance as a fish out of water who starts questioning his own reality as he gets pulled into this world of gore and over-exaggerated imaginations, but his performance gets a bit lost in the overly ambitious narrative. In the end, the idea of a person getting caught up in their work is a strong premise, and setting it in the confines of a sound studio keep you wanting more.
The Upside: Watching Gilderoy behind the soundboard is like watching a maestro with his baton, as we see him take an ear-piercing scream and turn it into something much more terrifying with the addition of a few specific effects and the film’s eerie score. Director Peter Strickland’s choice to shoot the film almost as though it was a horror film in its own right helps these sounds and their creation process truly vibrate off the screen.
The Downside: Confusing plot turns take away from the overall impact of seeing how these sounds can change the feeling of a scene, even when you are actually watching the mechanics behind the fear being created.
On the Side: The film was originally a short Stickland made back in 2005 with the hopes of taking audiences inside the escapism movies could provide.