In the past decade, Peter Strickland has emerged as one of Britain’s most exciting filmmaking voices. What makes his work so distinctive and so recognisable after only a handful of films is his fetishistic attention to sensory detail. Numerous critics have described his work as ‘cinema of the senses’, and it is true that by watching his films one almost gets the sense of being able to feel and smell as well as see and hear them (The Duke of Burgundy even featured a perfume credit in its opening titles!). His latest, Flux Gourmet, takes this to new heights (or perhaps depths) and makes it the very subject of the film.
Describing Flux Gourmet is not straightforward. It defies easy classification, having elements of farce, satire, drama, and even horror without sticking entirely to any genre. It is a weird little chamber piece, taking place at an artistic retreat run by the fictional Sonic Catering Institute. They invite ‘culinary collectives’ to stay and develop their artistic ideas and explore culinary disciplines. This involves putting on bizarre performance art (followed by hallucinatory backstage orgies – really). These scenes are certainly funny, but thankfully Strickland never adopts a smug tone towards it, never ridicules it. Indeed, the film is inspired by Strickland’s experience of being in such a musical group earlier in his life.
The collective in residence this time is a trio made up of Lamina, Billy, and their leader Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed). The retreat is run by a strange imposing woman called Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) who has the most extraordinary wardrobe and is always referred to by her full name, except on one crucial occasion. Documenting the proceedings is Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a Greek writer with a low opinion of himself and a particularly bad case of trapped wind. He goes to great lengths to conceal his troubles, although ultimately the medical tests performed on him by the pompous Dr Glock (Richard Bremmer) become part of the group’s performances.
The core of the drama is in the gradually boiling tensions that develop as their personalities rub up against each other. Conflict comes from within and without, threatening to break the group apart. Elle is uncompromising in her desire to shock; the after-dinner speeches cause controversy; a rival collective attempts sabotage as revenge for not being invited; there is a particularly hilarious disagreement about a flange. All of this boils away nicely throughout, and there is genuine thought here about the artistic process and the conflicts artists face in trying to be radical. For those who look, there is also exploration about what food and cooking can represent about gender politics and power.
For some these conflicts might be tedious, but for those who can tune in to Strickland’s wavelength, the pleasures are innumerable. I was even surprised at the end when he brings in an emotional register, giving the proceedings a wholly unexpected pathos that feels completely right. As ridiculous as the characters seem at first, he uses the tensions to tease them out until they become human. Flux Gourmet is a tremendous, idiosyncratic piece of art from a filmmaker in complete control of his craft. It is his best work to date, in part because he has fully absorbed his European genre influences into a fully realised aesthetic, without abandoning the signature affectations of his earlier work. It is certainly not a film that everyone will enjoy, but for those willing to take the plunge it is unmissable.
Press image courtesy of Curzon Films