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Welcome to the Sonic Catering Institute – a forum for microphones to be plunged into bubbling fat, trips to the supermarket mimed, and a live colonoscopy projected as performance art. The extravagantly bizarre Flux Gourmet, deranged and deliberately pretentious in ways only Peter Strickland would dare try these days, is the British filmmaker’s closest thing yet to a pure comedy, and certainly thwarts any expectation of beard-stroking self-seriousness from minute one.
These games are not unlike highbrow Jackass, blended with a tinge of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave”, as indicated by turns from two of that movement’s stars, the intriguingly exotic Ariane Labed and hairy, Hobbit-like Makis Papadimitriou. The film was shot over a few weeks under lockdown, situating said Institute in a country house to which guests have been invited by a debonair impresario called Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie, in couture creations that get loopier for each successive scene).
The latest beneficiaries of Jan’s lavish patronage are a three-person “culinary art collective” who haven’t quite figured out a name yet, but have a month-long residency laid on at her expense. Their most intense member is Elle di Elle (a riveting Fatma Mohamed), who lords it over the more passive Lamina (Labed) and Billy (Asa Butterfield, with a drooping fringe in his eyes). When Jan makes courteous attempts to provide constructive feedback on their nightly performances, which consist of a lot of sensual writhing, food play and amplified fermentation, Elle will have none of it.
A power struggle thereby brews, while a kinky fling between Jan and Billy gathers heat. And all the while, a depressive hack called Stones (Papadimitriou), who barely calls himself a journalist, treads a few paces behind them all, lest his bouts of flatulence reach anyone’s ears.
This is certainly the silliest, fartiest, most ribald film Strickland has made to date, following a career trajectory that has become ever more cherishably his and his alone. The erotic S&M of The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is reprised here in almost spoofy fashion, as Christie’s Jan beguiles Billy in bed with a mere whiff of her fingers, and hypnotises this freakish youth into doing her bidding.
Meanwhile, all those games with foley recording in Berberian Sound Studio (2012) are resumed with tongue much more blatantly in cheek, enabling the film’s brilliantly heightened aural landscape to exert a strange grip on the viewer. What plot there is becomes fixed, practically at random, on the function of a device called a “flanger”, used to modulate sound signals – it’s the proximity to “flange”, a nickname for the vagina, that surely pressed some Carry On button in Strickland’s screenwriting imagination.
“You can keep the epicurean toxicity, but indulge me on the flanger, please?”: now there’s a line, spilling from Christie’s lips, that you don’t hear in British cinema every day. Not for the first time, fans of outré art cinema may be put in mind of Peter Greenaway, who’s up there with David Lynch and Derek Jarman as one of Strickland’s most obvious heroes.
Christie has been given a gloriously absurd role which she plays with perfect control, giving each line a plummy gravity. Butterfield, too, is in his element as a crawling little horndog with dirty fetishes to spill, and the character actor Richard Bremmer is ripely macabre as a cadaverous in-house doctor.
Flux Gourmet plays like a gonzo skit, and is hilariously unabashed on that level, but there’s clearly a level of commentary here regarding the crazy whims of artistry, the trouble with getting funded by people whose opinions you despise, and the shrivelled incompetence of anyone paid to write about your work and consume it when it’s served.
The Stones character barely has a personality to speak of, just hideous breath and a mortal fear of audibly passing wind: it seems from this characterisation that Strickland may have met one or two film critics in his day. He knows what suckers we’ll be, too, for this pungent, ridiculous stew.
Cert TBC, 111 min. Dir: Peter Strickland. Premiered at the Berlin Film Festival; a UK release date will follow