Berberian-Sound-Studio-3

Since its conception, the giallo genre of cinema has enjoyed an intimate relationship with psychoanalysis. Themes of repression, compulsion, dysfunction, and psychological discontent underlie much of the style and narrative in much of Euro-horror cinema from the 70s, particularly in that of the giallo masters including Bava and Argento. Indeed, psychoanalytic interpretation is not merely suggested but covertly demanded through atmospheric mis-en-scenes that evoke a sort of fantastical terror only possible in the most depraved of minds. Strickland’s tribute to all of these themes brings to mind the excellent The House of the Devil (2009), similar in that the two films pay deliberate homage to horror films of the past through filming techniques particular to the original eras. Berberian Sound Studio is deeply ensconced in the giallo ethos, resulting in a meta-cinematic experience: a film about a film that elicits Bava and Argento directly, combined with Hitchcock sensibilities of suspense and psychological foreboding.

For the most part, it is a claustrophobic and muted affair, faithful to the time period of the 70s; with dull brown and mustard employing most of the colour palette. In a style evocative of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy there is a perpetual sense of unease, of deliberate tension vibrating through the air. Gilderoy (the always superb Toby Jones) is a meek and fatally polite Englishman clearly out of his depth, fumbling his way through awkward exchanges with his often inscrutable colleagues. His sense of isolation will later exacerbate Gilderoy’s eroding grasp on reality and psychological disintegration, as he becomes ensnared in a surrealist nightmare shrouded in paranoiac hallucinations. Sound is the vehicle of horror both for Gilderoy and the audience, as the two become one in the same. We (and Gilderoy) are rarely given glimpses of the film being made, aside from a few seconds of title cards; in an act of cinematic sensory deprivation, Strickland captures your full attention through your imagination alone. The absence of moving images to augment sound directly capitalises on the horrors that the mind can conjure, incensed by the depravity of the clearly brutal and misogynistic film: the sounds of women being drowned; scalded flesh; and rampant butchery.

The final act is a thing of rare beauty. Content to avoid conventional horror narrative, Strickland elevates his film to a plane of cinematic mastery. Suddenly, the entire conception of film-within-film and the nature of spectatorship and agency is inverted – as a coda to the queasy relationship between dreaming and reality that Gilderoy has suffered, he becomes a part of the film itself, removing himself a step further from us, the audience. From being a character in a film as the audience views him, Gilderoy now literally becomes a character in a film, where his dialogue is dubbed in Italian, and his nightmarish episodes are merely narrative devices. The relationship between film and film-within-film is now completely transfigured into a sophisticated construction of narrative and subject identification. Strickland is masterful and intellectual in his execution, employing filmic and psychological devices to the effect of inducing an entirely original and singular cinematic experience.

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