The noise heard in many blockbusters these days doesn’t raise one’s confidence about the future of sound in Hollywood. But the poetic nuances of, say, a splattered zucchini can be heard in Peter Strickland’s challenging thriller, “Berberian Sound Studio.” His film not only exploits one of cinema’s most important modes, it also attempts something more difficult: turning a genre movie into a work of art.
To its credit, the 1970s Italian studio of the title values the art of sound, but that doesn’t mean it’s a nice place to work. On the contrary, it might be an anteroom of hell. Meek British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives and is greeted by a rude receptionist and a woman’s screams. The latter are being recorded for a film in production; it’s only a movie, but as Gilderoy’s growing paranoia blurs the real and the hallucinatory, you have to wonder, what does “only a movie” mean?
For the others working at the studio, “only a movie” means only a job, with the usual workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and boredom. The producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), browbeats employees, in particular targeting the women hired to dub dialogue and screams, and also Gilderoy, who’s never worked before on a movie involving the torture of witches and other graphic violence against women. When he discusses his discomfort with horror films with the director, Santini (Antonio Mancino), he’s loftily informed, “It’s not a ‘horror’ film. It’s a Santini film.”
The title of this “Santini film” is “The Equestrian Vortex,” and it’s a lot like Dario Argento’s cult classic “giallo” (the Italian genre of lurid, erotic horror movies) “Suspiria” (1977), which the Brattle has thoughtfully programmed in tandem with “Berberian.” Substitute the dance academy in “Suspiria” for the horse-riding school of the film within this film, and the stories sound very similar. In both, two students suspect that there is something fishy about the grotesque killings happening around them and seem likely to pay for their curiosity. Whether the “Vortex” looks anything like Argento’s hallucinatory images, on the other hand, is hard to say, since we see it only as mirrored on the appalled face of Gilderoy while he provides sound effects by abusing fresh produce.
What is actually seen on screen is more reminiscent of such studies in claustrophobic madness as Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant,” David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” and Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation.” As in those films, much depends on the actor playing the tortured psyche at the center of the anguish, and here Jones acquits himself well. He palpably shrivels when Santini and Francesco mock him for his misgivings about the film’s misogynistic sadism, or when a Kafkaesque accountant keeps denying his request to have his travel expenses reimbursed. Even his anodyne letters from mum grow sinister; and as the soundtrack and vertiginous narrative coalesce, Jones depicts with exquisite panic Gilderoy’s descent into a dark place where the term “looping” takes on a diabolical meaning. Though “Berberian” bogs down a bit in its infernal spiral, Strickland proves himself to be a rising talent — a master of sound and fury both.