“But round the castle there began to grow a hedge of thorns, which every year became higher, and at last grew close up round the castle and all over it, so that there was nothing of it to be seen, not even the flag upon the roof.”
– Little Briar-Rose (Sleeping Beauty)1
In his compiled collection of Super 8 home movies, Peter Strickland describes a youth in which he felt “torn between natural history and film” – alternating weekends between the natural wonders of Thursley Heath and the curious offerings at London’s Scala cinema. This tension continues to resonate through Strickland’s features, evinced in the interplay between the raw materiality of nature, and the ephemeral and fantastic possibilities of fiction. Like the recurrent image of deep dark woods in fairy tales in which characters find themselves literally and metaphorically abandoned, lost, or trudging on some fateful quest, nature in a Strickland film is more than a perilous backdrop. Beautiful and ominous, it signals a liminal space between worlds, threatening to swallow characters whole and turn cinema in on itself.
Strickland’s first feature, Katalin Varga, traces a woman’s pursuit of vengeance. Banished from her village, Katalin (Hilda Péter) sets out with her young son, Orbán (Norbert Tankó) through the Carpathians to find her rapist (and Orbán’s biological father), Antal (Tibor Pálffy). As the pair leave the familiar behind, the film’s domestic, everyday setting is soon dominated by landscapes both magnificent and foreboding. Asking locals for directions on the roadside, Katalin is given a portent warning to turn around, but the camera follows the mother and son’s horse-drawn cart towards the distant mountains.
Strickland balances the natural with the otherworldly; in a haunting moment, the pair walk through an empty field towards a towering woodland. While elsewhere the relentless trill of insects, the clatter of goat bells, and other natural sounds are foregrounded, here they are drowned by layers of avant garde noise; Steven Stapleton and Geoff Cox’s “The Grave and Beautiful Name of Sadness” delivers something between mechanical drones and Gregorian chants. Orbán skips merrily towards the forest, Katalin following warily behind. In a moment inspiring Lynchian dread, we cut to Katalin’s point-of-view to watch the boy run full pelt towards the trees, beyond which lays seemingly infinite darkness. Katalin’s terror-stricken face is transformed as every muscle stands to attention, Strickland making real the threat that the darkness might just swallow him.
The trees and darkness recall Katalin’s assault, nature a nexus between a traumatic past and an uncertain future. This aperture between worlds is opened again when, aboard a rowboat with Antal and his doting wife, Katalin will give a detailed recount of her past ordeal. Antal, suddenly disorientated in the realisation of who his guest truly is, rows in circles, the trees that frame the riverbanks behind them becoming a dizzying blur. From this painfully real description of suffering, tactile and olfactory, Katalin’s words then turn fantastic. Recruiting the parlance of folklore, she describes the creatures of the forest coming to her aid in the wake of her assault, comforting and protecting her. Just as nature is a space in which the past must be revisited in all its palpable horror, it is also a creative realm where this same past can be revised.
In Katalin Varga, the intertwining of the material and fantastic is evinced in a boundless wilderness. Berberian Sound Studio inverts this dynamic; organic fragments form a tenuous connection with the world outside an increasingly claustrophobic studio space. Gilderoy (Toby Jones), we are told, has left England for Italy to work on Foley sound for a horror film. We do not see him enter the studio, nor will we see him leave; the action of the film is constrained to interiors.
Gilderoy’s profession depends on fabricating indexical relations to the physical world through often unreliable signifiers, and so within the studio space, natural elements exist for the sake of artifice. While we are attuned to recognise the creation of an off-screen fictional world – Gilderoy tears the stems from radishes to represent hair torn from a witch’s scalp, for instance – Strickland gradually erodes our ability to distinguish between the real and the artificial. In one scene, a homesick Gilderoy appears to step outside into the night, leaves and twigs crunching beneath his shoes. This too is revealed to be false, however, when a colleague finds him pacing in a pit of leaves in the studio during one of the frequent power cuts. More than once, Gilderoy discovers a cellar spider in his lodgings, releasing it ‘outside’. In one instance, he gently ushers it through an open window, the subsequent shot showing it land on a cabbage in the studio during another sound test. The introduction of organic elements here, goes beyond crafting an illusion, instead undermining the very spatial and temporal divisions we formerly assumed reliable.
Climactically, Gilderoy is awoken during the night by someone trying to enter his lodgings. Armed with a kitchen knife, Gilderoy will tear open the door, only to find himself back in the studio where the scene of this intrusion is projected and dubbed into Italian. Disoriented, Gilderoy watches himself on-screen, a character in a horror film. Confronted with his own image, the projected celluloid flickers and sears, before melting to reveal footage from a nature documentary Gilderoy previously worked on – a quaint look at the chalk downland in Box Hill. As the camera slowly pans the lush countryside – the only exposure we are afforded to a world outside the studio’s walls – a narrator tells of the natural wonders and habitats therein. This moment marks a transition point in Berberian Sound Studio’s narrative. For the remainder of the film, temporal, spatial, actual and fictional planes are knotted indistinguishably; Gilderoy is both inside and outside the film he is scoring, until, transfixed by the flickering light of the projector, he is devoured by it, and Berberian Sound Studio ends.
While Katalin Varga reveals a seam between worlds where past and present, material and ethereal realms overlap, in Berberian Sound Studio such distinctions dissolve entirely. Eventually the ‘fictional’ world of cinema carnivorously swallows the ‘real’ – like a nightmarish ouroboros, there is no escape. Though clearly fascinated with the natural world, Strickland’s cinema is by no means beholden to its laws. With scientific precision, Strickland records nature. And with occult wonder, he pushes its limits.
- Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Little Briar-Rose (Sleeping Beauty)”, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Alice Gleason, ed. Margaret Hunt, trans. Dover Publications, New York. 2007, p. 182. ↩