Throughout Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland revels in references to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s and 80s. In many cases, these references make use of reflexive images of filmmaking and recording machinery: for example, the typical black-gloved, faceless killer becomes a black-gloved, faceless projectionist named Giovanni. Beyond its clever moments of homage, Berberian Sound Studio distinctly counters the giallo tradition of poignant, soaring, melodious scores. Rather, the film self-consciously comments on its own content through its soundtrack – specifically, its lack of a soundtrack beyond that of its filmic subject.
The film takes place almost entirely within the bounds of the Italian title studio, where Gilderoy (Toby Jones), the British, often painfully awkward protagonist, becomes a psychological prisoner after being mysteriously recruited as the sound engineer for notorious auteur Santini’s (Antonio Mancino) horror film, ridiculously titled The Equestrian Vortex. Largely due to his sometimes comically abusive work environment and the disturbingly graphic scenes he must watch over and over again in order to do his job, Gilderoy eventually loses his ability to distinguish between film and reality.
From a soundtrack perspective, the stage is set for Gilderoy to teeter off the proverbial deep end in this particular way. The sinister organ music, whooshing noises, and static-like sounds that Gilderoy records and arranges into the soundtrack of The Equestrian Vortex also compose the sole soundtrack to Berberian Sound Studio. The audience only hears what Gilderoy hears, which is limited to the horrible sounds of the film that consumes his life. The opening scene introduces us to the situation quite obviously: when Gilderoy enters the studio for the first time, faint organ music accompanies his interaction with Santini’s right-hand man, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco). Since no source is visible, the audience might assume that this music is non-diegetic (that the characters themselves are not aware of it). But before playing a segment of The Equestrian Vortex for Gilderoy’s um, benefit, Francesco yells to the invisible projectionist, “Giovanni! Stop the music!” and the organ music abruptly halts. Francesco’s subsequent, “Start the soundtrack!” invites the reintroduction of music, but now the audience has been alerted that this music is strictly diegetic, as will be true of all the film’s music.
By denying the audience any non-source music, Strickland blurs the boundary between the diegesis of The Equestrian Vortex and that of Berberian Sound Studio. Often a scene of Gilderoy working feverishly at his desk takes on a tense, dreadful air because of its accompanying music, but a camera pan to a previously unseen recording device reveals that we are hearing the diegetic music of The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy edits it. The sense of claustrophobia is heightened as it becomes clear that Gilderoy’s life shares a soundtrack with Santini’s horror film. Thus we are prepared for his break with reality when, in an homage to both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Gilderoy hallucinates being shown film footage of his emergence from bed just moments before. As indicated by another Lynch reference, this time to Mulholland Drive in the flashing red “Silenzio” sign motif, not everything we see and hear in this film should be taken at face value. The “Silenzio” sign itself, however, can be read as an obvious message: outside of its horror film subject, Berberian Sound Studio – and Gilderoy’s life – is silent.