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Watching The Duke of Burgundy was a pleasure, albeit an unexpected one: for one thing, I didn’t expect an all-female film depicting a sado-masochistic relationship between two lepidopterologists to be so relatable, for another I didn’t expect to laugh out loud at a sly yet strangely sweet joke concerning urophilia. Berberian Sound Studio, the previous film by director-writer Peter Strickland, intrigued and unsettled me in equal measure, but at the same time it didn’t much engage me emotionally. In spite of a typically strong performance by Toby Jones, it struck me primarily as an exercise in style, atmosphere and genre – and one, at that, whose intended audience didn’t really include me, as my knowledge of Giallo is slight.
Toby Jones is something of an unacknowledged gem. While his parts are rarely showy, he usually brings a beautifully earnest, genuine quality to them, whether as Truman Capote or as a computer-generated house elf with a heart much bigger than his diminuitive size suggests. It’s difficult to imagine Berberian Sound Studio with someone other than Jones in the part of the British sound engineer Gilderoy who seems to wish to shrink even more in the face of an intimidating job in an equally intimidating environment. Having worked primarily on bucolic British nature documentaries and recording the domestic sounds of rural England, he looks and feels out of place working in Italy on a bloody supernatural thriller – but don’t call it a horror movie, or the unctuous director will give you an earful about the film’s artistic ambitions! Gilderoy is visibly ill at ease, having traded the birdsong and ticking grandfather clocks of the recordings that remind him of home for the sounds that evoke medieval torture and putrid corpses.
Aside from Jones, whose performance transcends the stereotype it’s written as (a repressed middle-class Brit intimidated by loud, garish and macho Italianness), the film’s main strength is its atmosphere and the way it is created: apart from its expressionist titles, we never see a single scene of The Equestrian Vortex, the film Gilderoy is working on, but as we are told about the horrific goings-ons on screen, we see and hear how the sound is created. Water melons are stabbed, overripe marrows smashed on the floor, and various other innocent vegetables tortured to evoke murder, torture and gratuitous deaths. Similarly, we don’t see beautiful young women falling victim to the vengeful witches’ curse, but we see actresses screaming in sound booths. Berberian Sound Studio demands our complicity in piecing together the film within a film from what we hear, and for audiences that buy into what the movie is trying to do it works exceedingly well: like a good sound engineer, Berberian Sound Studio creates an ominous, uncanny world in our heads by appealing to our ears.
There are distinct Lynchian overtones (no pun intended) to the film, suggesting especially Lost Highway’s games with identity, but Berberian Sound Studio is equally indebted to Kafka: while Gilderoy never wakes up to find himself turned into an enormous beetle, a puzzling sequence late in the film makes him undergo a transformation befitting its themes. Where Gilderoy was initially unable to speak Italian, entirely at the mercy of others who would choose when to understand him and when not, and when to exclude him from their conversations, suddenly the words coming out of Jones’ mouth are in the language of Mario Bava and Dario Argento – yet it’s a dub. Gilderoy’s own, English voice is gone. Where before he was working on a film, albeit hesitantly, his agency and selfhood are gone as he becomes subject to film. He is a character reduced to the bare minimum, a body, hollowed out and filled with someone else’s voice. The words may be the same, just in a different language, but the Gilderoy we watch as Berberian Sound Studio comes to a close comes across a doppelgänger. The man who from the first looked like he wanted nothing so much as to make himself vanish has been dubbed over.
However, while Berberian Sound Studio is intriguing, it is also flawed. It excels in terms of atmosphere and evocativeness, and Jones is very strong, but at times the film feels like it’s trying too hard to become a cinephile’s cult movie. While I haven’t yet watched the short film that it grew out of, Berberian Sound Studio is too long for what it does. Scenes often repeat the same motifs and effects without reinforcing or varying them, and initially strong formal ideas wear themselves out. Moreover, while I like elliptic narratives, there are several moments where I felt the film was simply trying too hard to make itself worthy of cult. There’s a preciousness to its last half hour especially that would have worked better in a shorter film (though at 94 minutes, Berberian Sound Studio is by no means epic); as it is, the movie ends up being rather too self-consciously cryptic for its own good. It’s a perfect starting point for movie-geek discussions in part because it offers enough of a blank canvas. Nevertheless, the atmosphere and especially Jones’ performance hold it together, even if the film is somewhat too keen in aiming for cult classic, and it’s the kind of movie that lingers long after its final image has gone dark. Se non è perfetto, è ben doppiato.