Set within a sonic catering institute, the latest film by 'In Fabric' director Peter Strickland serves up another wild, witty and wonderfully weird concoction.
September 08, 2022
Flickering across a cinema screen, even the greatest of movies only inherently activate two senses: sight and hearing. Audiences can feel the seats they nestle into in their favourite picture palaces, and savour both the scent and flavour of popcorn while they watch, but no one can touch, taste or smell films themselves as they're playing — even if adding scratch-and-sniff aromas to the experience has become a cult-favourite gimmick. British director Peter Strickland knows all of the above. And, he hasn't ever released a feature in Smell-o-Vision, Smell-O-Rama or Odorama. But his work still conjures up sensations that viewers know they can't genuinely be having, such as running your fingers over an alluring dress with In Fabric, detecting the flutter of insect wings against your skin via The Duke of Burgundy and, courtesy of his latest movie Flux Gourmet, relishing the fragrances and tastes whipped up by a culinary collective that turns cooking and eating into performance art.
If you've seen his features before, Flux Gourmet instantly sounds like something that only Strickland could make — and from its first frame till its last, it proves that with every moment. While spinning this innately sensory tale, which he both helmed and penned, it does indeed literally sound like something that only Strickland could've come up with, in fact. As the acoustics-focused Berberian Sound Studio demonstrated, the filmmaker's audioscapes are always a thing of wonder, too. His movies may manage to magically engage senses that cinema's sound-and-vision combination intrinsically shouldn't, but they also make the utmost use of every echo. The same applies to each image; unsurprisingly due to his strong and distinctive sense of style and mood, everything about Flux Gourmet looks and feels like pure Strickland. His films can't actually be injected into anyone's veins, but the director's devotees will instantly want this delirious farce pumping through their system.
The setting: The Sonic Catering Institute, a conservatory specialising in blending sound and cuisine, as its name makes plain. The "institute devoted to culinary and alimentary performance" is overseen by the couture-coveting Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones), and regularly welcomes in different groups to undertake residencies. Those visiting artists collaborate, percolate and come up with eye-catching blends of food, bodies and creativity. Hosting OTT dinners, role-playing a trip to the supermarket, getting scatalogical and turning a live colonoscopy into a show: they're just some of the menu items that Jan's latest guests cook up. In Elle di Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed, The Souvenir: Part II) and Billy Rubin's (Asa Butterfield, Sex Education) case, however, that unique kind of kitchen virtuosity only springs when they're not broiling in messy bickering.
Chaos bubbles through and troubles the trio's troupe, who stir up mayhem among themselves as heartily as any chef stirs their dishes. But Elle, Lamina and Billy aren't the Institute's only current visitors. Watching and chronicling is journalist Stones (Makis Papadimitriou, Beckett), who is also suffering from gastrointestinal struggles that he worries might be something more. As his subjects keep riffing on the human digestive system, or trying to, he can't control his own. Endeavouring to withhold his flatulence 24/7 is his constant struggle. Somehow, keeping a straight face as everything gets absurd around him is a far easier task, but Flux Gourmet's viewers shouldn't want to share that achievement with him; this purposefully strange, silly and surreal film is far too deliciously hilarious.
Let Stones' struggle sink in again: to fart or not to fart, that is his question. Yes, one of Flux Gourmet's key plot points revolves around letting it rip. Yes, Strickland masterfully finds empathy in that toilet humour, understanding that we all break wind as a normal bodily function, and pairs it with a savvy takedown of art-world and showbusiness pretension. As a satire, his film dips its spoons into smug attitudes, exclusionary conventions, and all the pompousness and ceremony that's stereotypically ascribed to every art form's upper echelons, then delights in gobbling down biting parody after biting parody. Thanks to Stones and his questions, Flux Gourmet is a spin on This Is Spinal Tap, too, complete with The Sonic Catering Institute's version of rockstar behaviour. Elle, Lamina and Billy play instruments, after all, even if they're often egg whisks, blenders and saucepans. They have post-show orgies. Tempers boil, even before Billy ends up in bed with Jan, their residency version of a manager — and an argument about a flanger threatens to tear everything apart.
That heated disagreement, and the key scene that sees Jan and Elle face off about the amusingly named audio-effects equipment — and say the word "flanger" again and again — screams everything about Flux Gourmet. It's ridiculous and riotous, never stops simmering, and proves entertaining as a piece of farce and a statement on the domain and personalities that Strickland is skewering. Crucially, it also owes as much to its leads as it does to its director. Strickland has Billy and Jan's relationship, Elle and Lamina's tension, and vengeful attacks by a rival sonic catering group called The Mangrove Snacks (who applied for the same stint but missed out) among the plot's courses, but his film not only gleams brightest but bounces around at its liveliest when neither the magnetic Mohamed nor Christie at her uproariously domineering best hold back.
Every recipe hinges upon its ingredients and Flux Gourmet is no exception. Its cast is committed, all playing characters attempting to control something, everything or both, and each peppering in their own seasoning — including the affable Papadimitriou as the seemingly sanest of the lot. Cinematographer Tim Sidell (I Hate Suzie) lenses the raucousness with verve and pop, and also like he's peering at a dream that's as intimate and visceral as a medical procedure, and yet as out-there as our brain's nocturnal imaginings come. Strickland's own hyper-stylised flair naturally flavours the whole meal, and saying that Flux Gourmet stands out even among his inimitable work is saying something. Wild, warm, witty, weird, wonderfully its own curious concoction: that's this delectable affair, which only falters in its slightly overindulgent pacing. That said, when a cinematic feast is this nourishing in so many ways — and to so many senses — who doesn't want it to go on?