Over the past decade or so there’s a number of British filmmakers that I’ve been following that have been creating some great films in a difficult modern landscape of decreasing cinema attendance, an increasing lack of physical product and an public that’s attentions are arguably diverted elsewhere. Between the endless ticker tape of super-hero action blockbusters, rom coms, maudlin indie films and all-to-dry and gritty realistic dramas I’ll find some things I can really get into with films that present a fantastic viewing experience. The filmmaking duo of director/editor Ben Wheatley and screenwriter/editor Amy Jump spring to mind, with a string a varied and rewarding films such as A Field In England, the black “horror comedy” of Sightseers and of course the visually stunning interpretation of JG Ballard‘s classic High Rise. It’s likely you’ll see an entry for at least one of these films in a future entry of Film Klub.
For this one however the decision was made to put in an entry for British director Peter Strickland. Only having done a few films since his low-budget début Katalin Varga back in 2009, he has developed a very recognisable style that brings in elements of lush, Italian giallo films from the 1970s, the drama, Fassbinder‘s period melodramas and elements of the more psychedelic output of the 60s/70s Czech New Wave — all combined together into something that seems modern yet not really from any particular time. Probably the best example of this fusion is The Duke Of Burgundy. Released in 2014, it’s a film that gives a snapshot of the lives of two lepidopterists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna).
Early in the film we see a relationship where Cynthia is a strict madame that gives domestic tasks for Evelyn to do throughout their large, country home. It is then revealed throughout the film that this arrangement is a fetishistic sub/dom relationship and it is actually Evelyn that is orchestrating what are actually precisely detailed tasks that Cynthia is to play out in her dominant role. It’s a film that riffs a lot from the lush, lesbian erotica of the seventies but opting for a more emotional, stylish and smart interpretation of that genre, and there’s a lot more going on than the eroticism of the main storyline: the cinematography is very lush,woozy and textured with many long passages of blurring images, textural details and abstract plays on light and shadow. You can even close your eyes and just drift off a bit to the film’s interesting sound design and soundtrack, scored by Cat’s Eyes (featuring a member of the British rock band The Horrors).
On a more recent viewing I noted there’s one scene where Evelyn, in the cover of night, goes to a room in the house to empty a large wooden trunk to make use of it for their erotic role play. It’s all done in slow motion, with Evelyn throwing the sheets into the air in the low lit darkness, creating a dreamlike, textured atmosphere. It would seem it’s a direct reference, to an almost identical scene in the 1972 Czech film Morgiana (covered earlier in Film Klub).
Anyway, to keep things on the actual topic, the intent of this entry was to cover another Strickland film, that came out a couple of years earlier called Berberian Sound Studio. The reason for this choice as the subject matter of this film is far more aligned to some of my interests in doing Soft Riot, and that is sound design for film! The plot of Berberian Sound Studio follows a series of increasingly strange and sinister events of a British sound recordist, Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones) that gets hired to work on a film in Italy and involves an insight to such film craft as sound foley and designing sound effects for the soundtrack.
The film opens with Gilderoy carrying his suitcases into a fluorescent lit corridor, having landed fresh off the plane to work on this film of which he knows little about. Right from his first interaction with with the receptionist there’s an alien feeling to the whole affair: Gilderoy being the classic stereotype of the meek, polite and soft-spoken introverted Englishmen and the staff of the studio playing the stereotype of being brash and loud Italians. We then get a cut to the bold and posterized, shaky black and blood red title credits, with with a baroque, phase-inflected dark psychedelic dirge performed by the British band Broadcast, who did the soundtrack for the entire film.
In this confusion Gilderoy tries to piece together what’s going on, made incredibly difficult by that fact that he doesn’t speak Italian and the audio cast and technical team are constantly talking to each other Italian. But he does find out at the start that the film he’s working on is not what he expected, being a trashy horror film called The Equestrian Vortex, although the film’s producer, the garish Santini insists that it’s not a horror film, but a “Santini film”. Gilderoy finds the whole process of his audio work on the film beleaguered by hot headed sound crew, rude adminstration and a tedious bureaucracy in the studio that makes things difficult for him.
From there the crew start back to work on doing the sound overdubs for this “Santini Film”, and what we do get is a great little bit of insight to the process of voice overdubs and sound foley work. A lot of good, healthy produce gets smashed, stabbed and thrown around to re-create the sounds of blood and violence within the film. The sounds of cabbages being dunked in water get used for the sound of “a witch being drowned by a priest”. The female vocal cast work out their best blood-curdling scream. There’s also great close-up shots of the studio equipment at work: faders being pushed, dials being twisted, reels of magnetic tape rolling and the needles of meters dancing around. We get to hear all the action, but the viewer never actually sees one second of The Equestrian Vortex, with exception of the opening sequence which blurs the line between the actual film and the “film within a film”.
It’s hard work, and with being stuck in studio bunker for days on end with a staff that he doesn’t speak the same language with, Gilderoy starts losing his mind a bit: seeing himself and previous events in the studio’s playback facility, including seeing himself being dubbed in Italian. Throughout the film he receives a few letters from his mother that he reads, and passages from these letters start appearing in random places. The first time I watched this film was a number of years ago, late at night, and my mind started to drift a bit into a dream state when the plot started going weird, which was probably suiting.
Berberian Sound Studio is technically a psychological horror— one in which Gilderoy’s mind starts unravelling as he works on The Equestrian Vortex. The atmosphere and setting of the film add to the psychotic feeling as the viewer never really sees anything outside of the studio and Gilderoy’s bedsit, despite many references to going outdoors, including a terrace that’s mentioned several times although we never really see it, or any daylight for that matter.
And although it’s a “horror” film, any fan of classic horror (ie: Hammer or Amicus), and even more so, the campier, trashier site of the Italian school of 70s horror and giallo, will have a few laughs at the details of the film that plays with the stereotypes of those genres: constant takes to get the right over-the-top scream, voice over cast members trying to make the sound of witches and goblins, as well as vegetables being used in creative ways to get blood and gore sounds. The sound foley duo of “Massimo & Massimo” come across like two lug-headed henchmen in a 30s gangster flick.
I suspect there’s also quite a bit of satire to the obvious misogyny that is blatant in a lot of the trashier, low budget giallo films of the 70s, and likely the crews that made them. As such the producer and director of The Equestrian Vortex are two absolutely cringe-worthy characters.
And, some of the most hilarious recurring elements are the hammy descriptive cues that are read out (in Italian with English subs) to establish the overdub takes:
“Monica and Teresa venture into the poultry tunnel underneath the Academy, unaware of the witches’ putrid corpses.”
“A dangerously aroused Goblin prowls the dormitory and tries in vain to molest Teresa, who makes a swift retreat.”
Typical to Strickland’s films, there’s a lot of impressionist editing, surreal elongated shots and lots of use of texture and lighting; shots of pans and zooms on complex textured created by rotting vegetables, close-ups of spiders, cells on reels of film being melted by heat, etc. There’s also some fantastic shots of tracklistings written on labels of magnetic reel tapes, blocking sheets and recording notes.
As for the soundtrack, Broadcast’s album output of colourful, soundtrack-influenced, 60s electronic, psychedelic pop sound totally works for this film: sinister analogue throbs, gothic organ pieces and music concrète segments. I believe it’s one of the last things that band member Trish Keenan worked on before her untimely death in 2011.
Toby Jones has had an increasing presence over the last decade in many high-profile films, as well as the British television series The Detectorists. More interestingly for me is the fact that Jones’ father is the actor Freddie Jones, known for playing memorable oddball and slightly deranged characters in films since the 60s. The most notable ones are the few David Lynch films he’s acted in, including roles as sadistic showman Bytes in The Elephant Man, Thufir Hawat in Dune and a weirdo, twitchy squawking guy at the bar in Wild At Heart. He’s also been in one of my fave creepy, 70s cult youth supernatural series Children Of The Stones and even in an episode of the 70s British cop show Van Der Valk (covered a bit here).
I wrote way more than I intended on this one but I guess I got a lot out of it the second time around. Strickland has more recently done a film called In Fabric, that is apparently about a killer dress that gets purchased from a sinister department store.
As a final note, I think “Barbarian Sound Studio” would work great as a name for a band. Just putting that out there…