MIGHT CONTAINS SPOILERS, MIGHT NOT. I HAVEN'T THE FOGGIEST. IT CERTAINLY CONTAINS CABBAGES, IF THAT'S ANY HELP.
It's always a bit annoying when a movie comes along with an irresistible premise and a fascinating locale and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with them. It's even more annoying when it's riffing on Italian horror movies and gialli - genres of which I'm a fair fan - and somehow it has none of their magic and bonkersness; crucially it has none of the tight grip on the narrative of the best giallo movies and instead goes for the breakdown of the barriers between reality, sanity, dream and fantasy. It might as well all be taking place in the fractured mind of the main character, and for all I know it probably is.
Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a shy and retiring sound mixer who lives quietly with his Mum in Dorking, where he usually works on nature documentaries - but he's been hired to do the sound effects for a sleazy Italian horror movie at the famous Berberian Sound Studio. He doesn't speak the language, he can't stand the grotesqueries of the film he's working on, he can't fit in properly with his colleagues, the producer or the director, he can't even get paid. Fine: a man hopelessly lost in an alien environment who has no idea what's going on. But reality starts to collapse: two thirds of the way through he's suddenly able to speak Italian, he tortures one of the dubbing actresses with deafening feedback to get a suitable scream out of her, tapes are destroyed and the production process becomes ever more chaotic.
It would have probably been a less artistic decision to have actually made a giallo movie set against the making of a giallo movie (although the unseen The Equestrian Vortex doesn't sound much like a giallo, more like a revoltingly leery mixture of Witchfinder General, Suspiria and Seabiscuit), but it would certainly have been a hell of a lot more fun. Berberian Sound Studio has barely any narrative at all to the point that there is no indication where it might end - is that the last scene? Maybe this one? Maybe four more scenes down the line? And because you (and Gilderoy) have no idea what, if anything, is actually going on, it's impossible to get involved with it. All that remains is the technical side of the production, which is impeccable: the fetishistic focus on the studio controls, reel-to-reel tapes, microphones and colourful handwritten maps of the layered sound effects required.
Then, of course, there's the detail of actually creating the sound effects themselves, many of which involve stabbing cabbages, ripping apart radishes and smashing marrows on the floor. Years ago the BBC used to release LPs of "Death And Horror Sound Effects" (which were allegedly banned in Germany!) and the liner notes detailed how these noises were lovingly recreated, usually involving cruelty to fruit and vegetables. All of which would be terrific in a documentary about sound effects; I could sit and watch that kind of thing for hours. But I desperately wanted there to be some shred of a plot and Peter Strickland just isn't interested in that; for me all the background stuff became the focus of the film because there wasn't anything else there (the ever watchable Toby Jones apart).
And what ultimately happened was that I ended up wishing I was watching The Equestrian Vortex instead, despite it (apparently) consisting of an English dub full of atrocious dialogue - an aspect of giallo cinema that Berberian Sound Studio certainly gets spot on - and extended scenes of women being sadistically abused. Maybe I'm just an artless philistine, but I wanted something with a touch of the accessible about it; like recent David Lynch, it's more about creating a mood and texture (both aural and visual) than about telling some kind of a story. Whether that's a plus or minus is probably a matter of personal tastes; sadly it's not to mine.