Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

An oft-repeated adage of filmic craftsmanship is that sound is fully half of the experience. A  professional sound designer will likely amend that to “at least half,” reflecting a belief that sound has profound effects on us of which we are not consciously aware. Berberian Sound Studio is the story of a man for whom that “at least half” grows into the experience entire.

That man is Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a British sound expert who has been hired to work on an Italian giallo horror film, a 1970s genre whose soundscapes were often created entirely in dedicated recording studios. Gilderoy, who is used to more docile work, is shocked and horrified at the content to which he is asked to give aural life, and fills his days by squashing melons to smash flesh, or snapping carrots to break bones. As he endures the criticisms and delayed paychecks of his Italian employers, only letters from his mother give the timid Gilderoy relief from the screaming, drowning, stabbing, and splattering that fill his days and threaten him with mental breakdown.

In a masterstroke by sophomore writer-director Peter Strickland, the accompanying sights are never shown onscreen. Though the studio runs the film in order to do sound work, we never actually see the gruesome on-screen images that obsess Gilderoy’s ears. Instead, Berberian Sound Studio merges the audio component of the film-within-a-film with the apparatus behind its creation.

The effect of this is that both the audience and Gilderoy begin to recognize the horror soundtrack as Gilderoy’s soundtrack, a trenchant comment on the relationship between artists and their work, as well as the way that sound creates meaning. That goes not only for the sound effects Gilderoy creates, but for the language barrier between him and his producer, or the ironic silence of the written word.

The effect is not a comforting one. Beyond Gilderoy’s awkward cowardice and his producer’s unending reprimands, the gradual integration of the sounds and music of murder into the wimpy Brit’s psyche becomes a horror movie unto itself. As pressure mounts and his work grows ever more horrible, he begins to soundtrack his own life in order to better cope with his discomfort. Gilderoy deteriorates further and further. In a late scene, he uses sound as a weapon rather than face his aggressor, resulting in a truly disturbing moment of audio torture.

But Berberian Sound Studio is not merely a chilly formal exercise. It is a psychological thriller in the fullest sense of the words, one whose dedication to its concept only furthers the sense of being trapped in a whirlpool. Its sound design instantly establishes itself as one of the greatest of all time, because there is not one moment of the film when it isn’t overturning our whole notion of what sound really is, and because it may be the only time when it is not the sounds, but the entire concept of sound that frightens us.


Post a Comment