Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an English film sound expert whose main work has been in nature documentaries. His first sizeable job internationally, as he is to find out to his surprise, is an ultra violent horror movie in Italy. It's the 1970s, home to the gut wrenching giallo genre of crime thrillers and the surgical candour of ghastly tales with medieval settings. It's Deep Red, Suspiria and The Devil's Nightmare, and everyone in the cinema is on the edge of their seat.
Gilderoy has not expected this. He is also unprepared for the getting on with the pugnacious world of Italian film production. He is feted as a rare find by the production team who also know he has no idea of larger scale movie making and its world of hype, dodge and sleaze. If this is the ocean he's a guppy washed down from the drain of a nice place in the Home Counties.
The world of Italian horror is still a rich garden to work in and I'd have happily just watch it evoked for the running time but there's a lot more here than nostalgia. In the setting of this film the production is made in two major passes: the visual and the aural; separate entities (and no question of a third pass with the contemporary process of CGI effects). Here, the timid Gilderoy is in command and as scene after sordid or alarmingly visceral scene is announced before playback and he sets to work, recording dialogue, bashing into vegetables by the cartload, screams by the abandoned-convent-load. We have to imagine the images he's enhancing this way as we never see them. We are treated to a fetishistic motion gallery of the details of the mechanisms bulky and tiny as they spin, flash to light or grind into movement. The emotional content of the images they carry are being blended with sound that will double their power.
The other reason for not showing any of the footage Gilderoy must add sound to is that through descriptions and the audio that consolidates them give us far worse pictures than Peter Strickland (director of the meta-film) could ever have supplied to universal satisfaction. Mind you, we do get a joyously authentic title sequence for the digetic film complete with the kind compelling prog rock score that has won this type of movie a lot of fans
But this isn't just economy. We are watching the effect of the production, the range of interpersonal atrocities necessitated by it and the flow of mental unease flowing from the screen to Gilderoy as he increasingly feels culpable by his involvement in it. I'll stop here from saying too much.
Berberian Sound Studio is a masterful weave of the joys and cruelties of cinema at its conception and execution. There is a little of both contained in the effect cinema has on its viewers and their self image. However temporary, the profundity of the identification between image and viewer can be transforming. Gilderoy isn't just watching, he's moving through its ether. After one incident where he takes some advice on handling the Kafaesque admin changing from his native politeness to something more rude and Italianate he is left worse off than before. His mother's letters from home take a genuinely disturbing turn. He is left more vulnerable than the eventual audience of the film he's completing.
This is where this movie comes into its own and offers an originality that climbs troublingly from the comfort of a familiar genre of cinema. While it isn't quite like Mulholland Drive or INLAND EMPIRE it becomes cousin to those films' unflinching drive into personal transformation, the shock of self-knowledge and its potential for severe irrevocable self perdition. This film is haunting me.