Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK, 2012)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews

Berberian Sound Studio may well be this year’s fiction masterpiece (with the qualifier ‘fiction’ thrown in to acknowledge the crop of excellent documentaries and essay-films that have appeared this year, at least over the course of the summer).

It tells the story of sound designer/mixer Gilderoy (Toby Jones), who arrives from the homely North Downs in Italy to help elusive director Santini (Antonio Mancini) and manipulative producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) to complete their new film, Il Vortice Equestre/The Equestrian Vortex, an Argento/Bava-style giallo film that features much horrific violence, particularly against women.

At first, Gilderoy is shocked at the film: this is not the kind of sound design he is used to doing. What is more, it seems as though Francesco will not be in any hurry to pay him. And so what he had taken on as a nice job in Italy soon becomes something of a nightmare: bereft of natural light, he is stuck in the titular sound studio from start to finish (his bedroom adjoins it) until he eventually goes mad.

Gilderoy’s descent into madness is signalled by him seeing himself on the screen in the projection room, before spending the last quarter of the film speaking an Italian of which he knew not a word prior to that point. During this period, we cannot tell what is hallucination, imagination or what is real. And the film ends with Gilderoy contemplating a white light projected on to an otherwise dark screen.

Now, Berberian Sound Studio of course talks to various other films, including many gialli, and films that look into the nature of the photographic image and/or film sound. That is, Gilderoy finds himself caught up in a paranoid mystery that has at its root his own phobias much in the way that modernist classics such as Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, UK/Italy/USA, 1966) and The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1974) do. However, I wonder that one of the film’s most powerful intertexts is David Lynch’s conundrum film, Mulhollland Dr. (France/USA, 2001).

Why Mulholland Dr.? Well, in short, it because Lynch’s film culminates in a renowned scene in the Club de Silencio in which Rebekah del Río performs a mimed version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish (“Llorando”). Meanwhile, Strickland’s film insistently tilts up or down across the word Silenzio, emblazoned in red across the screen as sound effects and dubbing are recorded in the studio.

I shall return to impossibility of silence. But first let me elaborate why Mulholland Dr. is a good point of comparison for picking apart the mystery that is Berberian.

As both Elena del Río and Robert Sinnerbrink have argued in the last few years, Mulholland Dr. is a film about parallel worlds and, indeed, about the powers of performance and the false in pushing humans to the limits of knowledge. What does this mean? It means that it is only at the limits of knowledge, where what is known comes into contact with what is not known, that humans can think and learn. For if learning involved knowing what we already know, then there would be no learning. And yet humans cannot know what they do not know – this would be impossible. And so it is thought that must function as the bridge between the unknown and the known. And it is when we are in a situation, as film viewers, where we cannot tell what is real from what is not – where we cannot be sure that we know anything – that we are forced to think. It is not that there is a single, or singular, ‘thing’ to ‘know’ or ‘learn’ when watching Mulholland Dr.; more important, perhaps, is simply that it encourages us to think, to know not some fact that is ‘out there’ in the world, but to know something for ourselves, perhaps quite simply to know ourselves. As if the very concept of self rests upon the principle of knowledge. And when we do not know, we are not ourselves, we precisely do not know who we are.

This for me might encapsulate Gilderoy’s journey in Berberian…: he is pushed to the limits of knowing himself, such that he becomes unrecognisable to his own being. This is marked by Gilderoy suddenly speaking Italian; it is marked by his new-found propensity for cruelty (he tortures a voice over actress with white noise at one point); it is marked by his inability to distinguish waking from dream. In short, Gilderoy follows a similar journey to Betty/Diane in Mulholland Dr. Although he is not literally doubled (Betty is also Diane – two people in one), Gilderoy is more than just himself.

However, Berberian perhaps does more than simply this.

In some respects, the film also provides some sort of metaphysical rationale for Gilderoy’s breakdown (signalled in part through the melting of the projection polyester on the sound stage screen in a manner directly reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (Sweden, 1966)). Like Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in the-aforementioned Conversation, Gilderoy seems to pursue perfection in his recordings – no matter how diabolical here the subject matter is. However, unlike Harry who is pursuing the perfect recording of a real situation, Gilderoy is pursuing the creation ex nihilo of a perfect soundscape.

The difference is slight, but important. In wanting to create the perfect recording of a conversation between a couple in San Francisco’s Union Square, Harry Caul attempts to rival God by achieving a position of omniscience. His descent into madness comes through his exasperation at the fact that the perfect recording is not possible. Unlike God, he cannot achieve a state of full knowledge, but his desire to do so – the unforgiveable sin – is the source of his guilt (Harry is a Catholic, after all), a guilt also manifested in his repeated inability to understand and/or to help the people whom he records.

Gilderoy, meanwhile, does not seek to capture reality in its entirety – to achieve a state of omniscience. Instead, he seeks to create an entire reality. In some ways no less sinful (from the Catholic perspective?), the utopian dream is also in many ways more understandable. Why not want to create a perfect world? But the important difference between Harry and Gilderoy is this: where Harry Caul (as I read the film) ends up in hell because he cannot achieve dinivity, Gilderoy ends up finding God in his private hell, precisely because he realises that reality is far more complex than he thought. Reality is too complex to create, Gilderoy comes to understand; while Harry remains adamant even at the last that he can know everything (although perhaps his resigned saxophone playing in his destroyed flat in the film’s final shot signals that Harry has ultimately given up the ghost?).

How can I reach such a bizarre conclusion – that Gilderoy ‘finds (a) God (of sorts)’ because he realises that reality is far more complex than a man with a set of recording machines can create?

Well, I shall argue that this is signalled in the film itself.

A major theme running through the film is its desire to make visible what is typically invisible. This works on various different levels. Firstly, Berberian Sound Studio is about sound. Sound is invisible. We cannot see sound, even if we can hear it and feel its vibrations against and within us. We do see Gilderoy’s extensive visualisations of the soundtrack to The Equestrian Vortex – but these are not the sounds themselves. We also see performers gesturing and gesticulating the sounds of goblins and witches; but nonetheless, I would argue that Strickland puts us deliberately in the paradoxical realm of film being able to show us what makes sound, but unable to show us sound itself – because sound cannot be seen.

Significantly, The Equestrian Vortex is about the persecution of women as witches. Santini, who is almost certainly a casuist (someone who uses logical-seeming rhetoric to argue for something that is not strictly logical), suggests that this history is real. In fact, of course, this history is real: women have been persecuted throughout the centuries, and yet it is a history typically occulted from the history books. History lessons tell us of men (and occasional women) fighting for power – but never or only rarely do history lessons and/or books explain to us that one of the reasons that people are fighting for power is precisely so that they can wield this power over their subjects, especially women. In short, then, Berberian… via The Equestrian Vortex engages with the hidden – invisible – history of the persecution of women, a theme that makes of Berberian… the work of the maker of Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Romania/UK, 2009), which also deals with the plight of women (problematically in eastern Europe).

It is canny that Strickland chooses to make The Equestrian Vortex a giallo film. For, in the spirit of the work of David Martin-Jones on the spaghetti western, one might read the giallo as the expression not only of disempowerment in Italy in the face of globalisation (a feminised and ‘magical’ Italy is continually beset by the cruelties of the contemporary world), but also as the expression of Italy’s own fascist past, one that cannot be directly represented (not even, quite, by Pier Paolo Pasolini). Fascist Italy is an invisible presence in Italy; its spectre lingers in the world of Berberian…, not least when Francesco explains to Gilderoy that he gives orders and others must follow (a lesson in Fascism 101).

Furthermore, the film’s insistence upon showing us tapes running within sound and projection machines furthers this emphasis on making visible what is otherwise invisible: when we go to the movies, typically films do not – since the development of classical narrative, at least – demonstrate to us the machinations of either their own making, or of their own projection. These are invisible secrets that Berberian… seeks to show.

More invisible: Berberian, in addition to its emphasis on machines and machinery, features many shots of fruit and vegetables. This lends to the film a strong sense of the still life: from Brueghel and Caravaggio through Goya and Delacroix to Cézanne and Gauguin, the still life has been a key aspect of art. Why the still life? Because the still life also renders visible what is typically invisible: the life that is inherent in fruit and vegetables, but which teeters on the precipice of death precisely because these objects are still. Their rotting – a topic also made clear in Berberian… – brings this home most forcefully: even supposedly inanimate/still objects rot or ‘die’ – which means that they must have been alive at some point – and yet we do not consider them to be alive, because their life typically is invisible to us. This is made clear within the frame of many still lifes, as it is within the still life-like images of fruit and vegetables in Berberian…: typically, the fruit and veg is excellently illuminated, while all around them is darkness – a sense of mystery inherent in these images thanks to the darkness, which subtends and reflects, perhaps even reinforces the mystery of that which is well lit in these images.

Two more invisibles with which Berberian… is concerned: the unconscious and the possible.

I have spoken of knowledge and I have spoken of learning: learning is the journey into the darkness of the unknown, and endeavouring to bring what one finds there into the known. The unconscious is the dark side of the human psyche; it is what we do not know about ourselves, it is what we may or may not learn, but it is what is there. It is what we do not understand about ourselves – our perverse desires, etc. And while there may be a history since Sigmund Freud of people who have tried to bring to light what it is that makes us tick, what is behind those unconscious drives, perhaps so, too, does Berberian offers its own evidence for us to psychoanalyse Gilderoy. The man who lives at home, who works in his shed, who corresponds still with his mother, who is too shy to talk to the beautiful women that surround him: Gilderoy has some sort of Oedipus complex going on, it would seem, as his unconscious desires slowly begin to manifest themselves in the film via his dream sequences, his unconscious significantly not being easily separated from his conscious mind, because when both are equally visible, then how can or could one tell them apart?

Secondly, the film is also about the possible. This is rendered in the extreme close ups of objects: we see entire universes or brain patterns in the leaves of a cabbage; we pass past spooling tapes as if they were giant wheels. What from the human perspective is simply an object is for this film the possible container for an entire, otherwise invisible universe. This is made particularly clear for me in the film’s insistence upon regular shots that are out of focus. For, from a certain perspective, a shot that is out of focus is only out of focus if we insist that what is in focus must be an object that is easily recognisable. A shot that is supposedly ‘out of focus’ is of course also in focus – if what we believe to be in focus is not an object but the air that surrounds that object. In other words, we often think of space itself as invisible – precisely because we do not think of space itself at all. And so Berberian Sound Studio attempts to show us space itself by often refusing to give us a focused shot of the object that fills that space, but instead to make us linger on the empty space that surrounds that object.

If on each of these levels Berberian Sound Studio tries to make visible what is otherwise invisible, what is the point? For me there are several.

Firstly, the film is a contemplation of how in our real lives the invisible, which normally we do not see, influences us. For example, cinema influences how we see and understand the world. It might sound strange to say that cinema is invisible: patently it is visible, since I can see cinema when I go to watch a film. This is true enough; but I would contend that while we see films, we do not see cinema itself. Or rather, while we can see films, we cannot necessarily see the influence that they have on us. For, as soon as we start seeing the world in a cinematic fashion because we are under the influence of films, it is impossible for us to see cinema in a non-cinematic fashion; cinematic vision has become, paradoxically, invisible to us. And yet, some films, Berberian Sound Studio being one of them, try to show us precisely this, by depicting Gilderoy’s descent into madness as he ends up imagining that he is in a film of his own making. It is not that Gilderoy is exceptional; his madness is one that grips us all. But you cannot show this otherwise invisible madness in a ‘normal’ film; that would only reaffirm the madness. It is only by making a film that is a conundrum, that is possibly quite alienating for some viewers, that Strickland can manage to expose and bring to our attention this madness. For if we could dismiss Berberian… as an exercise in standard filmmaking (a trap into which the film arguably falls, as the list of intertexts and forebears makes clear; there is a generic mode of doing these things), then we would think no longer on it; by refusing genre (while working at the very heart of the giallo), and by refusing easy answers regarding what the hell is actually going on, Strickland points out how in our real lives we cannot be so sure about what is actually ‘real’ and what is simply fabricated by us because we see the world in a cinematic fashion.

There is nothing wrong with seeing the world in a cinematic fashion. Human perception is shaped by our desires and fantasies as much as it is by any accurate vision of reality. However, what Berberian… seems to stress as important is that we remember and consciously to try be in the world while understanding that this is the case. There is no absolute measure of knowledge, not least because it can only be acquired by coming into contact with the unknown. There is no light without darkness. And there is no reality without our inventive/creative input therein. A typical film might draw a hard and fast and binary distinction between the two: this is real and that is dream/fantasy. But a film with the insight of Berberian Sound Studio is more interested in showing that in reality there is no (easy) distinction between the two. Our actuality is already surrounded by virtual realities, and the two are codependent on each other.

And so the making indiscernible of reality and fantasy acts as a starting point for us viewers to reflect upon and better to understand ourselves, our world, and our relationship in/with it.

I argued earlier on that, in the course of the film, Gilderoy ‘finds God.’ What exactly did I mean by that?

If we are surrounded by the invisible, and if the invisible structures our being and our understanding of being in a way that is far more fundamental than our commonplace assumptions regarding reality (well, I am me, and this is real, and that’s that because it is visible and I can see it), then we are heading towards the realm of the spiritual. We do not see reality, but only images of reality, images that may not be, precisely, real. When we recognise that reality is invisible, that it is ‘beyond’ us, but that it structures our entire existence, then this is a confirmation of the spirit that lends itself to some sort of Godly definition.

Berberian Sound Studio ends with Gilderoy looking at a black screen in the eponymous studio. A machine that has started running without any human intervention projects on to the screen darkness and a small, dancing white light. Cinema is reduced to its most bare constituents: black and white projected on to a screen, and the impossibility of silence. The light that we can see, and the darkness that enables us to see. If we are only here because we are enabled to be here, then what do we call that which enables us? This is what we might call God, a God who abandons Harry Caul, but who comes to haunt Gilderoy, precisely because Gilderoy cannot create anything so complex as a universe like this one. Because for all of the sound that Gilderoy can emulate, mix and create, the one that he cannot is, precisely, silenzio.

Please forgive these late-night and half-incomprehensible rantings, but Berberian Sound Studio a magnificent film that contemplates upon the nature of desire, self, existence, cinema, the unconscious and the invisible. By not necessarily making us see the invisible (this would be impossible), but in letting us feel that it is there (God not as provable, but as something in which one has to have faith), we come one step closer to God.

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