Flux Gourmet: Peter Strickland’s latest slice of fanciful formalism

Meticulously constructed, hermetically self-referential and very European, this heightened comedy about a collective of artists who generate music from the sounds of cooking won’t appeal to every palate.

1 October 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Fatma Mohamed as Elle di Elle in Flux Gourmet (2022)
Sight and Sound

Peter Strickland’s past films, including Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014), were not hermetic in the absolute sense. They couldn’t be read against conventional codes of human behaviour, as depicted in any form of realist cinema, but they absolutely made sense in reference to cinema itself: giallo horror, Euro erotica and, for the more approachably comic In Fabric (2018), 1970s British horror.

By contrast, Strickland’s Flux Gourmet is as hermetic as they come. The only immediately available frame of reference seems to be the imagination, and the career, of Strickland himself. What could we possibly make of a setting called the Sonic Catering Institute, if not for the fact that the director has since the 1990s been a member of the Sonic Catering Band, which generates music from the sounds of cooking?

A similar culinary collective features in Flux Gourmet. A trio led by a woman named Elle di Elle – a pun on ‘low-density lipoprotein’, aka ‘bad cholesterol’ – has won a much-prized residency at the Institute, run by the outlandishly elegant Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). Their residency involves staged recitals of food and sound creation, sometimes incorporating performances by Elle (Fatma Mohamed) in a confrontational Viennese Actionist vein, followed by ritual backstage orgies.

All these events are being officially documented by a writer named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), who narrates via voiceover in Greek. But Stones is plagued by chronic flatulence, and seeks the advice of the Institute’s physician, Dr. Glock, played with magisterial loftiness by Richard Bremmer, whose intense stare and death’s-head physiognomy worked to alarming effect in In Fabric.

Jan seduces the youngest member of Elle’s trio, the gauche Billy (Asa Butterfield, hiding behind an early-1980s indie fringe). Meanwhile, Elle struggles to find a name for her group, Stones submits to Dr. Glock’s curiously performative style of treatment (“Why did I agree to a public gastroscopy?”, he muses), and the Institute suffers a series of revenge attacks from a group named the Mangrove Snacks, whom Jan has turned down for a residency (“I don’t like what they do to terrapins”).

Viewers averse to highly conceptual cinema might consider Flux Gourmet a prime example case of that much-derided form, the ‘film where nothing happens’. In fact, plenty happens in a film crawling with plot strands, although their intermeshing paradoxically creates an effect of stasis rather than advancing action.

UK/US/Hungary co-production, Flux Gourmet is very much not the sort of film that British directors are ‘supposed’ to make. It’s highly formal, built around repetitions: a series of performances; mimes depicting supermarket trips; recurrent waking-up scenes in which the musicians pull back their bedsheets in perfect sync; running jokes, like Elle exclaiming, “Jan Stevens!” every time Jan enters the room. The film is conceptual, in that both visual and verbal content is generated by a set of ideas: the culinary, the sonic, the gastric.

And it’s very European, while playing up a comically heightened Englishness: on one hand, the tweedily cantankerous Glock and a performance from Christie of positively regal eccentricity; on the other, a cast including Papadimitriou, the Greek-French Ariane Labed and, matching Christie for all-out ripeness of style, Romanian-born Strickland regular Mohamed (the silkily menacing shop assistant of In Fabric).

The closest comparison for Flux Gourmet in British or any other cinema is Peter Greenaway, in its comic, mock-scholarly preoccupation with bodily functions (sex, taste, digestion) as well as in its sheer formal abstraction and highly composed depiction of the bizarre. But it’s hard not to feel that Strickland has leaned a little heavily on the formalism. Flux Gourmet seems hung up on the repetition of certain ideas that don’t necessarily resonate beyond themselves. There’s a certain pedantic over-insistence in the humour: the word “flanger” is only funny the first six times. And the film doesn’t quite have the organically eerie sense of an autonomous world taking shape before our eyes, as in The Duke of Burgundy; here it’s as if the machinery has been set up in advance and we’re just watching it run through its arcane operations.

Flux Gourmet is, of course, meticulously constructed, right down to the design of a very pre-feminist cooking manual; the sound is as richly crafted as you’d expect, and it’s beautifully shot by Tim Sidell in hues that are often some way off the standard colour chart. But the result won’t appeal to every palate – not even the palates previously attuned to Strickland’s singular cine-cuisine.

► Flux Gourmet is in UK cinemas now.

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