A bewitching helix of pure movie stuff, Peter Strickland's seething and self-conscious whatsit Berberian Sound Studio may scan as a psychological thriller, but it's really a lavish gift to film geeks in a lovely matryoshka box.
We haven't been here before: the Italian film industry circa 1976, in that post-dubbing-craze industry's seediest foley studio, and once we're in there's no getting out. It's an irresistible dynamic: being trapped in a Kafkaesque netherworld of genre film post-production, where "reality" is an ungraspable quantity, but what's "happening" in the film under construction is overwhelmingly vital. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a shy British sound engineer, is imported to fabricate the soundtrack for what seems to be an absurdly gory Dario Argento-ish giallo. "Seems to be," because we never see the film in question, but only hear it, as a thousand cabbages and melons are decimated with knives and sledgehammers, and as the brittle Gilderoy finds himself lost in whimsical Italian bureaucracy and appalled by the bloody mayhem on the screen.
Naturally, Strickland's film is infected with the menace emanating from the film within the film. Again and again, the aural horror becomes the sly soundtrack of Berberian, and vice versa. Giallo-ness is everywhere; Gilderoy is even haunted by an Argento-style daddy longlegs. Although the experience is filthy with satiric details (Italian moviemakers take it in the knees), almost nothing happens in Strickland's film — it's almost completely rampaging atmosphere, which assaults Jones' shaky artisan even as he manufactures it. The screaming, bloodletting business of the giallo is "nothing," too, just sounds and images, no matter how much the pretentious director, once he shows up, blathers on about his film's "truth."
Amid the ironic jokes, Strickland reaches for the oddest moments — when a special dubber (Katalin Ladik) is brought in to vocalize a "resurrected witch," the sense of qualm felt around her unearthly voice is dead real, and the film — the real film, the one we're watching — behaves like something terrible is happening. As a distraught Gilderoy cold-bloodedly beheads radishes in time with subsequent tortured screams off-frame, the gag comes molded over with grave creepiness.
The mysterious question of exactly why Gilderoy was hired is broached (by a dubbing actress during a walk in the woods, which is actually a patch of sound-effect leaves beside a tank of crickets), but don't expect Strickland's crisply paranoid movie to collapse into conventionality. It's more like a Borges story, and gets as much sardonic juice out of the slippery love-hate romance between visuals and sound as Brian De Palma's Blow-Out and Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin. Gilderoy's subjectivity takes over, and the two films he's "in" cross-fertilize each other — until there's almost no film left. Berberian may sound like it's more fun to pick over afterward than watch, but it's also masterfully crafted; as you'd hope, every shot and blip of soundtrack noise counts. Strickland has conjured so much with so little — which sounds like a definition of the artifice of movies.