Graham Williamson’s review published on Letterboxd:
What is Berberian Sound Studio about? Listen carefully.
If you do, you'll hear the music of Broadcast, the Birmingham-based electronic group who provided the score to Peter Strickland's second film. Broadcast, along with Pram, Stereolab, Position Normal and Boards of Canada, were one of the first British bands to work in what's termed the "hauntological" style.
The term "hauntology" was coined by the French theorist Jacques Derrida, who claimed that a society that considered itself beyond ideology - as the post-Communist West initially did - would be unable to imagine a future, and would instead be ruined by ghosts of the past. To understand what it means in terms of music, remember that the Boards of Canada were named after the band members' shared memory of watching documentaries in school with strange electronic scores, many of which were produced by the National Film Board of Canada. That strange old Britain where BBC television dramas had avant-garde electronic scores, where buildings were prefabricated out of concrete and glass, where culture, not just technology, seemed to be propelling itself into the future. Hauntology is about the unease of finding something apparently futuristic that belongs to a distant past.
That's what's on the soundtrack to Berberian Sound Studio, and that's what the film is about. The year is never specified, but it's clearly some time in the 1970s. Gilderoy is a timid Englishman in a corduroy jacket who records the sound effects for bucolic nature documentaries about the Yorkshire countryside. He is hired to do foley work for something being made in Italy, something about horse-riding, he thinks.
He ends up working on The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror movie clearly patterned on Dario Argento's Suspiria, made by the flamboyantly pretentious, actress-harrassing director Giancarlo Santini. Despite its catalogue of rape and torture and aroused goblins, Santini insists that The Equestrian Vortex "is not a horror film - it is a Santini film!" and defends his gory vision by saying he needs to show the truth of how witches were persecuted as vividly as possible. By contrast, unsentimental studio owner Francesco brushes off Gilderoy's concerns about the brutality he's doing take after take of, saying it's "only a film". Soon, Gilderoy loses sight of the difference.
Berberian Sound Studio is a film about the effect of media violence on real life that is interestingly completely unconcerned with violent cinema's impact on the general public. Rather, it is the people creating the film who feel the malign effect of their work. We never see The Equestrian Vortex apart from a spot-on pastiche title sequence, but it's hard to imagine the crass, bullying, misogynistic Berberian Sound Studio employees making a sensitive film about female persecution. The unseen projectionist wears the black gloves beloved by killers in Italian giallos. One great shot recreates the genre's go-to angle of a male POV tracking a woman - but rather than a murderer following a helpless victim it's poor old Gilderoy, tailing the studio's incredibly unhelpful, far from vulnerable secretary.
In the end, I think Berberian Sound Studio backs up David Cronenberg's famous point that only censors and psychotics can't differentiate fantasy and reality. Watching it back, everything that destabilises Gilderoy could be interpreted by a more rational mind than his as a completely normal occurrence. There could be no record of his plane arriving because the person he's calling copied the number down wrong. His sudden switch to speaking Italian, which plays out as if he's been sucked into the film, might just be a chronological jump forward to a later time when he's picked the language up. Even the most ominous line, when an actress tells Gilderoy that Santini hired him for a reason, might just refer to Santini enjoying his work. Maybe he does like to unwind with a documentary on the South Downs, who knows?
What Strickland has achieved here is the exact opposite of a magic trick. He shows you all the inner workings - the way sounds are produced, the way studio time is planned and allocated, the dubbing process - then leaves your mind to reel as it wonders what the outcome might be. What a rich, creepy, well-paced, empathetic film it is. Strickland is right in there alongside Gilderoy in his breakdown, ripping the film apart for a Bill Morrison/Peter Tscherkassy-inspired nightmare sequence. He studs the film with little, telling details of what kind of life Gilderoy leads back home - I love his reel of field recordings, including perfectly parochial titles like "Pete's 'oribble bootlaces". But it would be nothing without an actor as good as Toby Jones to tie it together, and make what could have been a theoretical exercise into something with life and heart. Strickland has the mixing desk, but Jones is giving the screams.