Flux Gourmet has a few tasty morsels, but it mostly offers glimpses at the more adventurous filmmaker that Strickland used to be.
The films of Peter Strickland, especially earlier work like Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, invite back-bending generic categorization even as they defy such simple sorting. It’s more accurate to suggest that his films imply genre more than they adhere to its formula. Berberian Sound Studio, in particular, concerns the making of a giallo and borrows the stylistic tics of famous antecedent gialli, but its content and structure have little to do with the films Strickland is drawing on. That didn’t stop plenty from classifying it as part of the genre anyway in an act of simplistic mis-categorization for the sake of reductive description. That those films are elusive is a large part of their strength, and the urge to easily categorize them does a disservice.
Here we are again with his latest, Flux Gourmet, which has likewise already been called a horror film when even those with a liberal view of genre would have a hard time justifying the label. However, as Strickland continues to broaden his films’ appeal in the wake of In Fabric and pushes towards more easily understood, conventional narrative filmmaking, the generic misnomer feels less like a disservice to an elusive film and more like wishful thinking. Flux Gourmet’s stiff performance art world satire could use a push past its gross-out faux extremity into something actually horrific.
Flux Gourmet concerns a performance art troupe led by Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed) that specializes in a culinary-based artform that seems located at the intersection of cooking TikTok, harsh noise shows, and the performance art at the center of Crimes of the Future. Elle cooks or covers herself in goop while her partners Billy (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina (Ariane Labed) modulate and remix the sounds in real time, creating a disorienting, aggressive effect. It reads as passé transgression, but evidently it’s all the rage as the group has taken up residence in an institute dedicated to exactly this under the guidance of Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), who immediately clashes with Elle simply by providing constructive criticism. All of the happenings at the institute are recorded by the writer Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a man who struggles mentally with being a hack and physically with an undiagnosed intestinal disorder that will eventually become a part of Elle’s act.
Strickland is not interested in deconstructing the relationship between food, gender, sex, and, well, shit as much as he seeks to further entangle those knots. Both inside and outside of Elle di Elle’s performances we glimpse the familiar Strickland assemblage that characterizes so much of his earlier work in hypnotic montages of food and sex set against electronic noise. But for as much as those connections are upfront in Flux Gourmet, there’s not much explored beyond the obvious, and, like Elle’s performances, it feels passé to simply illustrate these bonds. More intriguing, then, is the film’s take on art and collaboration. Elle reveals herself throughout to be a tyrant, putting her vision over everything else, even as she routinely displays a lack of technical knowledge. She insists on keeping a criticized flanger in the act though she doesn’t know what a flanger is — in Strickland’s sound-obsessed world, this is a sin as grave as murder. She is wholly reliant on the abilities of Lamina and Billy to achieve her routine artistic vision, but both on stage and in their personal lives she disrespects and violates the two. In this the film’s real throughline of conflict between artistic collaborators and the domineering auteur they toil for emerges. It’s a lightly amusing power struggle that pulls everyone, including the technical assistant, into the fold and constantly threatens to come to a head.
Yet, it doesn’t really. The veneer of rigid aesthetic precision and a script working overtime to keep things in check makes the still occasionally hilarious proceedings uptight. And while this at first appears to be a tool to build some sort of dramatic tension, at length it starts to feel more like indigestion, as if the whole film is, like Stones, holding in a fart. It’s easy to imagine what release would look and feel like if the dramatic tensions were to explode, but just when it seems about to happen, Strickland lets it peter out, prizing his pat thematic concerns over satisfying drama. Were Flux Gourmet’s ambitions especially insightful or even specific, the subversive turn might be worthwhile, but there’s not much here beyond good performances and a few glimpses of the more adventurous filmmaker Strickland once seemed to be. Flux Gourmet is still a funny, gross movie, but it’s also one that seems hesitant to go further in either direction.