When I was much younger and learnt that foley artists – those who create sound effects for movies – get paid to stab watermelons for a living, I since developed a soft spot for wanting to become one. So it’s fitting that the ones in Berberian Sound Studio are bearded, dark-haired, unkempt, silent, intense freaks. It’s making me want to quit my job to power-hurl an appropriately-watery marrow to the floor and pretend it’s a defenestrated dead body.
So I guess that I can’t completely identify with the protagonist, Gilderoy (the always brilliant Toby Jones, who’s nailed everything from the voice of sock-fetisher Dobby to HYDRA’s finest Austrian robot Nazi scientist). A mild-mannered, meek-to-his-own detriment (OK, maybe I can relate) sound engineer from Dorking, he’s contracted to work in Italy on what he thought would be a documentary about horses. It’s not until he gets there that he realises he’s working on a giallo film, a then-emerging, ultra-violent slasher genre (the film is set in 1971), though the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) refuses to outright admit that he’s doing a horror movie.
It’s not Gilderoy’s job to do the foley, but he’s soon roped into doing so anyway. This, along with an unprocessed flight reimbursement and his colleaguess increasingly hostile behaviour, starts to make him feel isolated. The culture shock couldn’t be starker: from the cute Dorking countryside and his mother’s letters about nesting chiffchaff birds to a claustrophobic, institutional-like sound studio and working long hours on the sort of film he could never bear to watch.
Gilderoy doesn’t speak Italian, and the studio staff only occasionally speak English (we are not afforded any subtitles). Nobody even tries to socialise with him; the studio’s secretary seems to go out of her way to make him feel like an unwelcome nuisance. At night, he retreats to his quarters and uses his previous work to earbleach away the sounds of stabs, thuds, squelches, searing burns, and some truly piercing screams. All he has is the work.
And it’s monstrously repetitive. A shrieking, pissing-your-pants-in-fear banshee scream can be jarring if heard a handful of times. But what if you had to listen to it over and over again, for months? How about if the principal voiceover actress, who confides in you that she was repeatedly raped by the movie’s director, finally declares herself tired of it all, and walks off the set, destroying the film’s reels, meaning you have to do it all over again? What if that kept happening? And what if you were so hard-up for work that you had no choice but to keep going? Mindlessly doing an horrific version of something you love will take its toll on you. You feel a little dead inside. Anybody trapped in a shitty job under dubious pretences can relate.
I must admit I read a slightly misleading synopsis, which stated that the studio was torturing its actors to get sound effects for their films. I imagined some sort of Hostel-like, torture-porn feature in which the stabbings were real stabbings; screams were real screams, etc. And when that didn’t happen, I was still waiting for an ultra-violent twist, such as the movie within the movie being a real snuff film, but that didn’t happen, either. I think I took an incorrect cue from the amazing opening titles with its fucking incredible music by a band called Warp that I am totally going to find (easily trumping the oft-mentioned Enter the Void‘s).
So when it all gets a bit Lynch, I felt like I’d wandered in expecting a different movie, and I felt I’d cheated myself, and went back and rewatched a few key scenes. Frankly, I’m OK with not fully understanding what the hell happened, because trying to dissect a journey into psychosis with an unreliable narrator is like trying to explain why the needle in the haystack is made out of stale jelly-covered toothpicks. There are some cracking theories being passed around online, but by the end of the movie I was glad it was over, so I could lean across my bed and open up the windows and take a giant huff of fresh air. I’ve never felt claustrophobic, but holy crap.
Naturally, the sound editing is top-notch; even without visuals, it’s as immersive and sinister as those hellishly creepy golden-era radio horror shows. You’ll never again rip the roots off a bunch of radishes without imagining it as hair being ripped from a screaming watermelon’s skull.