Unsafe and Sound
Film lecturers, thumbing through new editions of classic theory tomes, desperate to inject new impetus into the same old classes, will be cheered by the arrival of Berberian Sound Studio: a meditation on the fabric of the filmic narrative, the subjects within and our identification with them. Peter Strickland’s crafted the perfect allegory for film spectatorship, exploring how sound functions to augment the moving image, induce psychological effects and suture you into its immaterial world. This is the literal fate of Toby Jones’ squat engineer.
Upon arrival in 1970s Italy he’s a meek sound monger, whose previous project, a nature film on Leith Hill in Dorking, required an aural simulacrum of ambient atmospherics – bird song, running water; the kind of sound that puts distance between you and your emotions. His new gig is pure cinema and the reverse; work designed to knead the spectator into the action, tethering them to a series of unpleasant mental associations: knives penetrating flesh, scolding, the pulping of heads and worse.
His discomfort disjoins him from the material; an effect reproduced in the paying audience by Strickland’s decision to keep the raw horror footage hidden from view. Our attention is fixed on Jones and with good reason; he’s inducting us in our future role. Later there’s to be an innovative reshuffling of personnel. We’re destined to become Jones and Jones in turn, becomes the object of our discomfort; part of a film his character didn’t plan to be in. You’ve watched a lot of movies but they’ve never promoted you before. This is new and exciting.
It’s two thirds of the way in, with Jones immersed in building The Equestrian Vortex’s shocks, and its back end soap opera – the lascivious director and his put-upon scream queen, that a transmogrification occurs and he’s bound to celluloid. Strickland pulls off a wholly original inversion of the relationship between the film and the film within a film. Jones, whose character had acted as a non-diegetic commentary on the unseen frightener, becomes a diegetic element. The barrier between fictive plains crumbles.
Jones’ soundman is now a character in someone else’s movie – his voice dubbed in Italian, the correspondence from his mother appropriated as dialogue. The end of the film is the end of the world; it’s nothingness – the blank screen and the shadow of the projector. This is the fate of all movie characters of course, but this may be the first time you’ve noticed.
Showing great imagination on a limited budget and disinterested in the formal conventions of a plodding horror narrative, Berberian Sound Studio is instead a fully absorbing education in sound design: a hypnotic psychological excavation that orientates its audience in the construction of their discomfort and in doing so circumvents all the clichés of the genre. What remains is the distilled essence of the movie experience: pure black magic.