British director Peter Strickland returns to screens with his fifth feature Flux Gourmet, a typically bizarre black comedy. Strickland’s signature dish of fetishism, Argento-esque horror, and British idiosyncrasy is served piping hot, even though Flux Gourmet sadly lacks something of the bite of his previous work.
Heading a ‘culinary collective’ – a band making musical art installations using food – Elle (Fatma Mohammed) is flanked by Lamina (Ariane Labed) and the emo-coiffured Billy (Asa Butterfield). The film opens with them arriving at an artists’ residency at an English countryside estate run by the frosty but emotionally vulnerable Jan (Gwendoline Christie).
Meanwhile, hack journalist Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) has been dispatched to cover the group’s residency, documenting their nightly performances (and hallucinogenic orgies). All the while, Stones is struggling with acute gastrointestinal distress, unsuccessfully hiding it from the others while he is subject to the tender mercies of the ghoulish Dr Glock (Richard Bremmer), whose snobbish bedside manner extends to quoting Euripides and belittling his dinner companions.
Flux Gourmet is a veritable smörgåsbord of ideas harvested from earlier Strickland films, combining the inverted sexual power dynamics of The Duke of Burgundy, the aural terror and psychological collapse of Berberian Sound Studio and the mystical fetishism of In Fabric. In one sense Flux Gourmet could only have come from the imagination of Peter Strickland, but in another it often feels like a greatest hits compilation, an assemblage of parts from other more coherent wholes. There’s something of an irony to this, given Elle’s fight with Jan to preserve the purity of her artistic vision versus the pragmatic impetus to give the audience what it wants.
Tim Sidell’s cinematography, Saffron Cullane’s wonderfully outlandish costumes and the uncanny sound design all deserve mention for the rich aesthetic blanket draped across the film. But underneath that blanket Flux Gourmet is lacking something of the deep-seated viscera of Strickland’s other work. Flux Gourmet is superficially, affectedly weird in a way that misses the unsettling dreamlike wrongness that is so key to Berberian Sound Studio or In Fabric, while the psychology of its characters are often too rote to elicit the empathy and drama of The Duke of Burgundy or Katalin Varga.
That’s not to say that Flux Gourmet is without delectable morsels. The aforementioned cinematography is rich with colour and contrast, bringing out the deep reds and inky blacks that dominate the frame. Elsewhere, the collective’s performances are a baffling delight to watch, as are the studied performances of the cast. Moreover, while the viscera of the film could be more pungent, its exploration of the ways that food, sex, performance and conflict intersect are at the very least intriguing. There is a great deal to enjoy here for devotees of Strickland’s work and the film feels destined to be described as his weirdest piece yet. But underneath that surface strangeness, Flux Gourmet doesn’t quite satisfy the appetite.