Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio” is the Matryoshka doll of contemporary psychological thrillers — and a non-horror movie that keeps on haunting. The film is set during the dubbing of a 1970s Italian gorefest that except for a few frames is never seen, the story it tells may be unfolding only in the protagonist’s head, and it’s driven not by its images but its chilling aural mosaic.
A timorous English sound designer, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), who has previously worked on children’s television programs and nature documentaries, arrives at an Italian post-production facility to provide the Foley for “The Equestrian Vortex.” He’s shocked to find that it’s an atrocity-ridden giallo about the ghosts of executed witches wreaking vengeance on the nubile students of an all-girl riding academy.
Since the supercilious producer, Francesco Corragio (Cosimo Fusco), and the playboy director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), would have been unlikely to hire an unworldly eccentric like Gilderoy, there’s reason to believe he never actually leaves his workshop in the garden shed of the house he lives in with his mother in Dorking, near bucolic Box Hill in Surrey.
Like the Naomi Watts’s character’s oneiric invention of her Hollywood adventure in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” Gilderoy may have dreamed or fantasized his Italian job into being, as an escape from his existence as a lonely sound boffin and mother’s boy. (The studio sign that flashes “Silenzio” when recording is in progress conjures the neon sign of “Mulholland Drive”’s Silencio nightclub.)
Such is his paranoia and sense of isolation, however, that whether they're imaginary or not the studio receptionist (Tonia Sotiropoulou) and the sound engineer (Guido Adorni) resent his presence. Only a maltreated voice actress, Silvia (Fatma Mohamed), speaks warmly to him. Only when Gilderoy demonstrates, during a power cut, how to make the sound of a flying saucer do his colleagues warm to him — but the moment of acceptance is abruptly terminated.
Watching the grisly film-within-the-film and creating its sound effects by hacking at vegetables that are left to rot in the studio, Gilderoy starts to disintegrate. When an actress brought in to replace Silvia practices an audition in front of him and her text turns out to be that of a letter from home detailing an avian tragedy, it becomes clear that his conscious and unconscious minds have merged.
The film’s sound team partially approached “Berberian” as if they were recording a radio play. I suggest experiencing it at least twice: first with all senses peeled, second with your eyes shut. Where silent cinema achieved perfection because sound didn’t detract from the visuals, Strickland’s putative classic may be the purest example of an audio movie, even if it wasn’t intended as one. It makes one pine for Lux Radio Theater versions of “Eraserhead,” “Blue Velvet,” and “The Blair Witch Project.”
Of course, the beauty of the Total “Berberian” depends on Strickland’s fetishization of now-obsolete analog knobs and dials and on Jones’s subtle expressions as the supersensitive Gilderoy. He is not only unhinged by seeing the giallo’s repugnant images over and over again and by having to supply the sounds of flesh being torn (and other tortures), but he’s also worn down by xenophobia and misogyny — he drinks in Corraldi’s spiteful handling of the actresses and Santini’s crass attempts at foreplay. As Strickland told me when I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times, “Berberian” is ethically driven, but registering distaste for gratuitous violence is not its only agenda.
The same article indicates some of the influences the writer-director drew on in formulating this follow-up to his outstanding feature debut “Katalin Varga” (2009), a modern Transylvanian rape-revenge thriller that denounces “eye for an eye” violence — and vibrates with haunting natural sounds. I also recommend this interview with Strickland in which he explains that even the choice of Dorking as Gilderoy’s hometown was significant because of its connections to early radiophonic experiments, Italy, and the poultry tunnel under “The Equestrian Vortex”’s riding academy.