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- Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale
Peter Strickland’s past films, including Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, 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, British 1970s horror.
By contrast, Strickland’s Flux Gourmet is as hermetic as they come – in that 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 called Elle di Elle – a pun on ‘low-density lipoprotein’, or ‘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 voice-over – in Greek. But Stones is plagued by chronic flatulence, and seeks the advice of resident 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.
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 positively crawling with plot strands, although their intermeshing paradoxically creates an effect of stasis rather than advancing action.
Jan Stevens seduces the youngest member of Elle’s trio, the gauche Billy (Asa Butterfield, hiding behind an early-1980s indie fringe). 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). 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”).
A 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; a series of 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 Fatma Mohamed (the silkily menacing shop assistant of In Fabric).
The closest comparison for Flux Gourmet in British or any other cinema is Peter Greenaway: not only because of the formal abstraction and highly composed depiction of the bizarre, but in the comic, mock-scholarly preoccupation with bodily functions (sex, taste, digestion).
But it’s hard not to feel that Strickland has leaned a little heavily on the formalism, in that 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 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 fabricated, 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 – or even to every palate previously attuned to Strickland’s singular cine-cuisine.