Peter Strickland turned many heads in 2008 with his debut feature, Kaitlin Varga, a film that premiered at the Berlinale and was memorable for the bold use of naturalistic lighting throughout the production of a film that was in essence a rape revenge thriller.
Strickland has comeback to the fold with an even bolder and more ambitious project, but this time produced at Three Mill Studios in West London. Strickland was teaching English as a foreign language in Hungary, and found money for his first feature by using his family's inheritance. This time he has found backing through the UK Film Council and Film4 for this his second feature.
Strickland has written a piece about Gilderoy (Toby Jones - in a rare leading role) an English foley artist, who has been transported to somewhere in Italy to work on post-production of a giallo horror picture directed by Santini (Antonio Mancino) where he works under the watchful eye of producer Francisco (Cosimo Fusco) a man who would love to be in charge but does not have the vision.
From the off, Gilderoy is on the back foot. An Englishman in a foreign land without a grasp of the native language, he is told to be more polite and courteous to his hosts. Santini is affronted by the notion of Gilderoy stating the generic context of the film, 'Never call my picture a horror picture. It is a Santini picture.' as he angles for authorial residency alongside Dario Argento to whom this is an audiovisual love letter.
Strickland does wonderful things with his script, we never get to see any of the actual filmed footage of The Equestrian Vortex ('I thought it was about horses?') instead we are treated to actors screaming on cue adding additional dialogue to the scenes, seeing in their eyes the colours as they watch the footage back. Strickland also employs two mute technicians as the worker bees who do all the destruction and damage to create the bludgeonings, stabbings and burnings that occur in the studio.
Slowly however, the wheels start to come off the post-production process as the director Santini attempts to bed an actress, Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) which ends in sabotage. This leads to them re-hiring and again messing up the process, apparently it was hard to find a solid screamer in mid-1970s Italy.
Gilderoy also slowly descends into a period of depression and alienation prompted by the letters sent to him by his Mother in regard to some birds in his garden shed. Gilderoy usually works alone in said shed, so working in a much bigger studio is a big deal for his career, yet he is one of these humdrum button-downed Englishmen who are scared to spread his wings himself, much like the baby birds his mother has found in his garden.
Whilst the film is expertly produced in terms of sound design, and visually stunning thanks to the work of Nick Knowland cinematography; yet there are at times lots of ideas in the film that are never fully pursued. The motif of a spider in Gilderoy's apartment leads him to look at something from his window, something which we never see; the repeated pictures of rotting fruit lead to nothing in general apart from fresher fruit being added to the pile and Gilderoy's numerous attempts to gain reimbursement for his flight is somewhat shot down by the insinuation that the flight never existed - why is this, does this make our Englishman a liar, or worse a madman who is not who he says he is.
A lot of these narrative threads are either tossed aside too quickly or rashly dealt with to maintain a short running time - itself a mystery as the first hour does seem to drag in spite of the evocative beauty of the piece in general. The third act which brings us Gilderoy being dubbed in Italian and with the film breaking into a piece about Surrey fields, is somewhat unwanted and distracting.
This is a shame as the film is masterly put together by Strickland with a lot of faithfulness and respect to the slowly forgotten art of sound editing and design. Yet the ending comes somewhat abruptly with Gilderoy staring at nothing in particular, meaning that the sound editor is probably just as blind as all.
Berberian Sound Studio is out now on limited release from Artificial Eye