Peter Strickland’s audacious second feature follows Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a timid English sound engineer, who travels from his home in Dorking to the sinister Italian studio of the film’s title to work on low-budget Giallo horror The Equestrian Vortex.
Strickland depicts, with salacious detail, the handmade techniques Gilderoy employs to create the foley effects that accompany the violent action occurring onscreen: watermelons are axed, cabbages stabbed, radishes torn and marrows pulverized with a mallet. Significantly, the footage Gilderoy works with is never directly presented to the audience, the grisly extended torture of medieval witches is implied in a cavalcade of violence against fruits and vegetables.
By so blatantly divorcing sound and image, Strickland highlights the disparate and highly constructed nature of the filmmaking process, an artifice Gilderoy creates with meticulous artistry, drawing particular attention to the soundtrack itself – an aspect often neglected in critical commentary, despite constituting at least half of the cinematic experience. The effect is playfully self-reflexive, but also takes simple pleasure in these strange, analogue acts of sonic creation. In one candlelit scene, Gilderoy entertains his colleagues during a power cut by creating the sounds of a hovering UFO with nothing but a lightbulb and a wire rack. It proves to be a truly mesmerizing illusion.
Eventually Berberian Sound Studio sheds its own narrative trappings and ventures into daring formal experimentation that more closely resembles the avant-garde work of Peter Tscherkassky – with his visual orgies of flying sprocket holes, cross-processing, negative reversals and multiple exposures – than the action that has preceded. Yet the emphasis on sound is maintained throughout, so that even moments of silence are significant. A singular and divisive work, leaving many of its mysteries intact as the credits roll, this has marked Strickland as one of the most important directors in contemporary British cinema.