Early in writer-director Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet, a voice over by Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a Greek journalist documenting the musical residency of a culinary music collective, explains the secretive methods he used to fart in privacy. His flatulence causes him so much embarrassment he spends his nights slowly releasing his gas. It causes him so much pain he searches for answers from this musical institute’s insensitive Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer). Stones has an undiagnosed digestive ailment, which he fears might be deadly.
And yet, Strickland never punches down or builds his narrative around insensitive fart jokes. To the director, Stones should be empathized with, not lampooned. It’s a refreshing outlook on a landscape so ready for the easy joke, no matter the target. While Strickland doesn’t wholly break new ground — he revisits some of the same sonic themes he covered in Berberian Sound Studio — Flux Gourmet is nonetheless singular in its comedic wit and study of collaborative artistic dynamics.
Strickland’s film takes place at a secluded manor house wherein an avant-garde sonic catering collective, known for using plant-based ingredients, takes up residency with the financial support of the institute’s patron Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). The collective involves the exacting and unorthodox visionary Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), and her technical partners: the resistant Lamina (Ariane Labed) and the submissive Billy (Asa Butterfield). Stones, a self-described hack, observes this combustible group at work and individually interviews them. From his voiceover and the group’s responses to his questions, we know this collective isn’t fated to last. How it will eventually crumble, however, means little in relation to the bumps they experience in their aesthetic journey.
Strickland doesn’t care much for strict plotting. Instead he composes revealing vignettes meant to interrogate each character’s respective doctrine. Stevens and Elle, for instance, immediately find disagreement over a flanger effect, causing both women to dig in their heels. Their dispute, of course, isn’t really over the flanger (the film’s sonic MacGuffin); it’s to do with their own individualism and vision. Their struggle throws both Lamina and Billy in the unsuspecting middle.
While Strickland’s penchant for absurdist humor is always on point, for Flux Gourmet to work, you need actors who are totally committed to the bit. And this cast doesn’t relent. Bremmer returns as the same kind of skeevy guy he played in In Fabric. Butterfield takes on a deliciously weird Billy, a young man hypnotized a la Pepé Le Pew by cooch aroma. The austere but no less farcical Christie provides further enjoyment whenever she goes broad. And Fatima, Strickland’s best collaborator, who often seems game for anything, is fully devoted as a performance art maven.
Still, it’s telling that we see this world through Stones’ eyes, played by an endearing Papadimitriou,mostly because Stones doesn’t represent himself as anyone special or someone totally concerned with artistic integrity. Stones took this gig for the money, knowing full well it amounts to fluff. Juxtaposed from his squarish intent, the comedy at play becomes even more absurdist, especially as an opportunistic Elle, feigning worry for him, leverages Stones’ illness for her own performance gains. During one presentation she smears her body with a jar of chocolate mousse meant to imitate Stones’ fecal matter. She and Dr. Glock later make his colonoscopy a live event. They’re all humiliating ordeals, but Stones is too affable to dissent.
Flux Gourmet features Strickland’s usual interest in nature (the collective takes early morning constitutionals for inspiration) which he uses to give us a break from the claustrophobic, often artificial confines of the manor house. Strickland has always been enamored by sound: Most prominently in Berberian Sound Studio and to a lesser extent in The Duke of Burgundy. Flux Gourmet also makes, as you’d suspect, a meal out of sound. Boiling pots become cacophonous scapes; sizzling pans rise to symphonic heights.
The obsession shared by Elle over this art form harks to Strickland’s habit of forming his characters around seemingly frivolous vocations: sound engineers, clothing salespeople, and lepidopterologist. It all comes together for a high comedy that challenges the boundaries of taste whereby misogynists, feminists, narcissists, and hacks are consumed by making plant-based food into music for a niche, uppercrust audience. It’s a calling so coveted that a jilted group, not selected by Stevens, called The Mangrove Snacks, spend the movie ambushing the manor house in retaliation.
While Flux Gourmet, surprisingly, might be Strickland’s most approachable work, it shouldn’t be immediately relegated to minor status, because it might also be his most empathetic offering. In a lesser filmmaker’s hand, this movie would devolve to pure toilet humor. But Strickland treats Stones’ condition with respect. He knows often people like his protagonist become the proverbial butt of the joke even though they’re often in anguish: emotionally, physically, and psychologically. It’s why, by film’s end, he takes Stones from the periphery of this collective to the center, allowing him the kind of public-facing adulation rare for most journalists. It’s a conclusion that makes Flux Gourmet a delightful and nourishing dish.
“Flux Gourmet” is out Friday in limited release.