Even when characters are smearing themselves with what appears to be feces, there’s an enticing sensuality to Flux Gourmet’s visual style.
Writer and director Peter Strickland’s new movie Flux Gourmet may be his weirdest yet, and that’s saying something for the filmmaker behind movies like Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy, and In Fabric. How do you follow up a movie about a murderous, possessed dress? With a movie about a world in which “culinary collectives” are the equivalent of rock stars, making music out of food preparation.
Strickland is known as an arthouse horror director, but Flux Gourmet doesn’t really qualify as horror, with none of the deadly intensity of Berberian Sound Studio or In Fabric. It’s closer to The Duke of Burgundy, another story of peculiar, fetishistic obsession. In both films, sexual and artistic interests become intertwined, with characters frequently crossing personal boundaries. Like Strickland’s other films, Flux Gourmet is set in what appears to be an alternate universe or time period that’s never specifically defined. It takes place entirely on the grounds of the Sonic Catering Institute, an artistic retreat run by patron Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie).
Jan is a benefactor to various culinary collectives, whom she invites for month-long residencies at her institute. These collectives combine cooking with music in a bizarre sort of performance art that is considered the height of artistic expression in this world. Artists still need funding, though, and Flux Gourmet often functions as a parody of the art world, grotesquely exaggerating the kind of interactions that artists and financiers typically negotiate. The flamboyantly dressed Jan seems desperate to contribute to the world of sonic catering, but the latest collective-in-residence has no interest in taking her input.
The nameless group is led by the domineering Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), who exerts complete control over her bandmates Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed) and Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield). She has a complicated sexual and romantic history with each of them. Flux Gourmet sometimes plays like a twisted version of a rock biopic, complete with Behind the Music-style interviews conducted by Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a writer who’s been hired to chronicle each residency at the institute and who narrates the film in subtitled Greek.
Most of Stones’ narration concerns his gastrointestinal difficulties, a storyline that parallels the collective’s food-based performances. As Stones consults with the condescending, lecherous Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer), his medical tests become performances, too. Strickland has always brought a deadpan sense of humor to even his most terrifying work, but Flux Gourmet fully embraces silliness with Stones’ frequent discourse about his flatulence, which causes him great emotional trauma while being completely ridiculous.
The solemnity with which the characters discuss farting mirrors the solemnity with which they discuss their art, and Flux Gourmet finds both topics equally absurd and admirable. Even as Strickland mocks artistic pretension, he treats his characters with respect and takes their emotional needs seriously. Flux Gourmet doesn’t quite achieve the graceful sensitivity afforded to the central relationship in The Duke of Burgundy, but Strickland finds genuine pathos in the unlikely romance between the imperious Jan and the timid Billy.
With her imposing stature and striking outfits, Christie is a dominant presence in every scene she’s in, but she doesn’t overpower the other characters, and Strickland devotes plenty of time to all of their personal journeys. In some ways, Papadimitriou is the opposite of Christie. He is an almost invisible presence in many scenes, but his narration makes Stones into Flux Gourmet’s hidden protagonist. The movie’s climactic catharsis belongs to him instead of any of the glamorous characters.
Strickland’s more horror-oriented movies have a certain visceral power that overcomes their sometimes nonsensical, impressionistic plotting, but Flux Gourmet lacks that sense of urgency. Viewers who aren’t on Strickland’s wavelength right away will probably find the movie frustrating and baffling, and even Strickland devotees may be put off by some of the odder detours. Strickland’s biggest influences remain Giallo movies and other low-budget European cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, but after five movies, he’s developed his own unique aesthetic, a sort of upscale niche erotica. Even when characters are smearing themselves with what appears to be feces, there’s an enticing sensuality to Strickland’s visual style.
Sometimes all that Flux Gourmet has to go on is that visual style, since the surreal narrative is full of inexplicable developments. There are strange sequences of Jan guiding the collective through what looks like meditation or hypnosis that simulates a trip to a grocery store, which exist almost as standalone episodes. There’s a rival collective that keeps harassing and attacking the Institute, whose motives and goals remain inscrutable. There’s a fixation on a piece of sound equipment called a flanger, which becomes a major point of contention between Jan and Elle. It all contributes to the immersive weirdness, and for viewers who can successfully place themselves in Strickland’s world, Flux Gourmet is sure to be a unique, flavorful experience.
Flux Gourmet opens Friday, June 24 in select theaters and on VOD.
Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, Inverse, Film Racket, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year. Follow him on Twitter at @signalbleed and on Facebook at Josh Bell Hates Everything.