Berlin: Gwendoline Christie, Asa Butterfield, and Ariane Labed star in a sweetly intoxicating oddity from the director of “In Fabric.”
A student of vintage Euro-horror whose dreamy tales of killer dresses and kinky lepidopterists are sometimes filed away as the stuff of simple giallo fetishism (even by his fans), British filmmaker Peter Strickland may not be shy about his influences, but the echoes that reverberate throughout his work only tends to clarify the mesmeric power of his own voice. No matter how indebted to Dario Argento or Jess Franco his movies might be — no matter how removed from time these fables always are — the likes of “Berberian Sound Studio” and “In Fabric” are embossed with such palpable sensuality that they soon come to feel as singularly now and present as the touch of a velvet glove on your skin. Sense is substance in Strickland’s films (we’re talking about a guy whose movies are so pungent that “The Duke of Burgundy” even includes a “perfumes by” credit in its opening sequence), and it was only a matter of time before he made one that you could practically taste.
A sweetly flatulent satire about the irritable relationship between art and decorum, “Flux Gourmet” flings us into another of the weirdo pocket worlds in which all of Strickland’s films take place. This one draws from ’70s fashion and ’80s haircuts to create a Lanthimos-like parallel universe where music is made with food (and food sometimes made from music), and kids dream about joining culinary collectives instead of becoming pop stars.
To clarify a point that Strickland’s film leaves purposefully vague: These aren’t teams of chefs who combine their talents to cook for people, they’re groups of performance artists who DJ with blenders, flop around in chocolate mousse, and “play” a man’s bloated intestines with the same virtuosic skill that Jonny Greenwood operates the ondes Martenot. They’re rock bands in the truest sense — all the way down to the raging egos that bring them together and the “Behind the Music”-worthy resentments that threaten to tear them apart. Many of them have been funded and forged together during a month-long residency at the ultra-competitive Sonic Catering Institute, an austere manor overseen by the imposing Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie, relishing her devious comic scenes as a patron of the arts who hungers for some authority of his own). When the latest guests show up at the stone mansion where this entire movie takes place, all we know is that neither the band nor the Institute will be intact by the end of their stay.
We know that because a kind-eyed man named Stones — the Institute’s resident file and Strickland’s de facto narrator — tells us so right from the start as part of a monotone Greek voiceover that reliably makes sense of the English spoken throughout the rest of the film. Played by a winsome Makis Papadimitriou, Stones is a hack writer whose lack of ambition and Eeyore-like malaise billows up from the gas in his troubled gut; Obsessively looking for opportunities to fart without notice, Stones is so worried about what’s coming out of his butt that he doesn’t have the bandwidth to focus on what’s coming out of his pen.
His embarrassing digestive issues have made it impossible for Stones to enjoy any of the Institute’s epicurean delights. The same food that brings others pleasure only tortures him with windy nights. He watches the backstage orgies that casually follow every performance (Strickland’s psychedelic take on the post-show meet-and-greet) from a chair across the room, left out of the fun like a kid who won’t join his friends in the pool because he’s afraid of taking off his T-shirt.
All of this is as dryly amusing as it sounds, but Strickland refuses to play shame for laughs; his sympathy for Stones is as vivid as the crimson sleeping gown that Jan Stevens wears around the house after hours. There are fewer actual farts heard in this film than in certain Ozu comedies, as — in its own abstruse style — “Flux Gourmet” is desperate for Stones to find a way of expressing his most intimate secrets. The institute’s hilariously ghoulish doctor, an old-school misogynist played by Richard Bremmer, sure isn’t in any real hurry to help.
It’s that repressiveness that compels Stones towards the Institute’s latest guests, an unnamed culinary trio fronted by Romanian shock rocker Elle di Elle (Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed, rare and riveting as the Courtney Love of sonic food play). She has no problem telling people what’s on her mind, and — despite her lack of technical expertise — is so dominating over the collective’s work that she goes to war with Jan Stevens over the boss’s first note of feedback.
And Elle isn’t the only frustrated artist out for blood. Strickland’s modest attempts at world-building soon reveal a small universe of simmering resentments, all of them bubbling closer to the surface as this cheeky film starts parodying the limits of personal taste. Even Elle’s submissive bandmates have their own violent struggles with artistic integrity, which unfold during the farcical dinner speeches and bizarro roleplay exercises that lend “Flux Gourmet” its unhurried sense of routine. Elle’s minions are played by the always-game Ariane Labed and a fearlessly deadpan and fully denimed Asa Butterfield, whose character is hypnotized by the slightest whiff of vagina like a cartoon character overcome by the aroma of fresh steak.
As those familiar with Strickland’s previous films already suspect, “Flux Gourmet” quite literally sounds a lot more off-putting than it really is. This is a movie that you can watch with your tongue (though Tim Sidell’s supple cinematography creates a rich palate of flavors from just a small handful of locations), but its occasional fetid moments are rooted in an emotional foundation. She is such a fascinating outlier for Strickland because she thrives on the shock value that the filmmaker has always elided, and while “Flux Gourmet” never achieves the same degree of pathos that allowed “The Duke of Burgundy” to distill high art from the vespers of schlock, it gradually reveals itself to be every bit as sensitive as Stones’ belly. Even the one scene that appears to earn the IFC Midnight label comes pre-cooked with its own curious aftertaste, as its deceptive grossness finds that we’re all betrayed by our senses in one way or another.
There’s no accounting for taste in a world where everyone is subject to their own allergies and appetites, but flavorless art never satisfied anyone, and “Flux Gourmet” insists that food can be nutritious even if it doesn’t agree with you. As usual, Strickland has made a sumptuous meal out of social impropriety — a strange cinematic delicacy about the discomforts that need to be shared so that others don’t have to be stomached.
“Flux Gourmet” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. IFC Midnight will release it in the United States this summer.