British filmmaker Peter Strickland makes distinctive cinema that awakens the senses — sometimes in unpleasant ways. His arthouse hit, "The Duke of Burgundy," about lesbian S&M lepidopterists, had a perfume credit. His thriller "In Fabric" featured a killer dress (don't put it in the wash!) His recent stop-motion short, "GUO4," had two naked guys fighting in a locker room that still made viewers feel every blow. These films are good preparation for Strickland's latest accomplishment, "Flux Gourmet" about a sonic catering collective's (yes, it's a thing), residency at an elite institute run by Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie of "Game of Thrones").
The collective consists of Elle (Fatma Mohamed), Billy (Asa Butterfield), and Lamina (Ariane Labed), who do performance art involving food sounds. In one set piece, Elle is naked and covered in blood, rolling around on the floor as cooking noises are played along with droning music. One scatalogical work features a voiceover track about a man being excited by a woman using the toilet, as Elle smears her body with what appears to be feces. (Viewers will likely keep repeating the mantra, "That is chocolate pudding.")
One comic sequence has characters comparing the size of their mouths as a form of foreplay.
As part of her residency requirement, Elle must give an after-dinner speech, and her topic, male domestic oppression, is a diatribe about epicurean toxicity and culinary hysteria that leads to a later discussion of dysfunctional alimentary ideology.
Ariane Labed as Lamina Propria in Peter Strickland's "Flux Gourmet" (IFC Midnight)
The entire endeavor could not be more pretentious. However, Strickland (and his game players) all take "Flux Gourmet" incredibly seriously — which is precisely why viewers don't have to. This film is very dark, very dry, and very funny. It features absurdist humor that underscores Strickland's points (made in all his films) about power imbalance. One comic sequence has characters comparing the size of their mouths as a form of foreplay.
The main drama chronicles the struggle between Jan Stevens — who is always referred to using both names upon greeting — and Elle. Elle refuses to take a note about the use of a flanger (an audio device) that her benefactor, Jan Stevens, wants her to dial back. But there are also conflicts between Elle and her colleagues, Billy and Lamina. Jan Stevens seduces Billy, who has revealed his psychosexual trauma in his post-dinner speech. Billy later wonders if Jan Stevens' efforts to get him to sleep with her was all a ploy to get him to do something about the flanger. Meanwhile, Lamina, who is tired of being treated poorly, starts to rebel against Elle. When Elle accidentally drops a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil on a staircase — Strickland lovingly photographs the spill — Lamina and Billy are tasked with cleaning up Elle's mess, and it may be the last straw.
There are other subplots, the most notable involving a journalist, Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), who is documenting the residency, having gastrointestinal problems. Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer) subjects Stones to a series of increasingly invasive procedures. One involves his colonoscopy being used as a performance piece. Actually, Stones is enacting a performance of his own by trying to contain his flatulence — or at least pass wind discreetly and out of any of these sound specialists' earshot. "Flux Gourmet" is so well made, and Papadimitriou such a great actor, that his efforts are tangible.
"Flux Gourmet" is not really focused on food porn. The most erotic scene ... features Elle holding and fondling a power cord.
Strickland is all about creating a tactile environment that makes viewers feel something. Throughout "Flux Gourmet," the members of the collective participate in pantomime scenes at a supermarket that are hypnotic. Watching Billy and Lamina frustrate Elle by getting in front of her (carrying only one item) with their half-full shopping cart — only to have Lamina forget to pick up a few items, thereby causing Elle to seethe with rage — is delicious, amusing, and real. And while it is artfully rendered against a white backdrop, the performances convince viewers that they have seen the entire episode. Such is the magic of Strickland's cinema.
Gwendoline Christie as Jan Stevens in Peter Strickland's "Flux Gourmet" (IFC Midnight)
The design details in the film are also rendered with meticulous care and precision. Jan Stevens's costumes are especially fabulous; she dresses in black and white outfits that are quite striking, but she really dazzles whenever she wears red. Likewise, the colors in the film, from yolk yellow to feces brown are incredibly vivid and luminous. The cinematography, by Tim Sidell, can make an overhead shot of a blender hypnotic, and shots of pasta and bread laid out in a tableau is, to use an appropriately pretentious word, fulgurous.
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But "Flux Gourmet" is not really focused on food porn. The most erotic scene — more sexual than that snippets from the post-performance orgies taking place backstage seen periodically — features Elle holding and fondling a power cord. This is a film less about sex than it is about the characters wanting comfort and control, or at least a sense of belonging. This is most evident when Jan Stevens admonishes Billy for being more interested in a catalog than their relationship, or during an absolutely hilarious scene where Stones finally loses patience with Dr. Glock.
Strickland maintains an unflinching tone throughout the film, and he is ably abetted by his cast who all recite their lines with deadpan glee. "Flux Gourmet" is certainly an acquired taste, but this unusual film is highly satisfying for adventurous filmgoers.
"Flux Gourmet" arrives in theaters and VOD June 24.
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