Toby Jones has an interesting face. It’s a set of features you can’t take your eyes off and he, as Gilderoy, remains a magnetic presence throughout Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a psychological horror about a man who finds himself slowly losing his marbles while working in a foreign country, completely out of his depth, surrounded by people who don’t understand him.
The studio is in an unnamed location in Italy, in a city big enough to have an airport close-by, as Gilderoy has been flown in to work on the latest giallo “masterpiece”, The Equestrian Complex. Why has he been brought to this country, for this film? This remains just one of many questions raised by the film that are never answered. Gilderoy’s attempt at being remunerated for his airfare is a bone of contention for much of the film, allowing director Peter Strickland to show us the deeper workings of life at the studio, and the Kafkaesque nightmare that he finds himself trapped within.
Kafka comparisons aside, Berberian Sound Studio has the echoes of lots of films rumbling round it. Peeping Tom is continually brought to mind, what with the constant shots of tape reels; and Pontypool, an already forgotton classic from two or three years ago that shared the same studio setting and an odd story, if not the visceral danger of the earlier film. The action in BSS is much more subtle, if no less affecting.
Toby Jones’ pitch perfect Gilderoy, the typical “Englishman abroad”, is utterly convincing and it’s his inbuilt cultural sensitivity that drives most of the tension for the first hour. There’s sexual tension between Gilderoy and the actresses whose microphones he adjusts, or whose many bodily mutilations he comes to cynically soundtrack. Massimo and Massimo, a jaded pair of Italian foley artists, provide minor comic relief while also adding to the all-pervading sense of absurd psychosis that Berberian Sound Studio provides. It’s probably already a classic, and Peter Strickland goes from strength to strength.
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