Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022) opens as a yet unnamed art collective enters a month long residency at the Sonic Catering Institute headed by Jan Stevens (a magnificently attired Gwendoline Christie). The collective is headed by Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, a veteran of all Strickland’s feature films). Elle is a woman with vision, but little technological expertise. Lamina (Ariane Labed) and Billy (Asa Butterfield) handle most of the sound design in the collective’s performances. They take daily silent “Thinking Walks” as well as make after dinner speeches. They also participate in pantomime visits to the grocery store that are narrated by Jan, and are far more about interpersonal interactions and internal states than picking up groceries to be crafted into sound. The collective must also put on a series of performances and after each is the opportunity for “public appreciation,” aka, orgies. Jan offers her notes on the performances, but Elle is extremely resistant to any interference in her vision.
Elle, Billy and Lamina work together well enough to land a prestigious residency at the Institute, but their artistic and interpersonal conflicts are drawn out by a writer called, “Stones” (Makis Papadimitriou). Stones works at the Institute, recording events, interviewing collective members and writing down his thoughts and feelings about everything that happens around him. He also provides narration–in Greek–for each of the film’s three segments. While the collective and Jan clash, Stones suffers a gastroenterological health crisis and the hostile, if not sadistic, bedside care of Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer). As the film goes on, Stones and his digestive woes become an integral part of both the story and the performances.
Flux Gourmet contains many of Strickland’s pre-occupations: the creation of art; presenting one’s work to an audience; the line between popular art and fine / avant garde art; attempting to access senses that are hard to access through film–here, smell, taste, and a somatic sense of gastric pressure; “Eurosleaze” and “Eurotrash” film, including a nice reference to Danger: Diabolik (1968); almost operatic fashion; and, of course, soundscapes and sound design. It’s all presented in Strickland’s lush, polished visuals; warm, saturated colors; and deep, mesmerizing sound design, much of which is created by Strickland’s Sonic Catering Band.
I have seen Flux Gourmet described as horror or horror-tinged. It is not a horror film in the way that Strickland’s In Fabric (2018) is. There are indeed horror elements to Flux Gourmet, particularly in the presentation of the food, and the suspense built around a stool sample, but disgust is not only a component of horror, it is a component of filth aesthetics and confrontational art. I think Flux Gourmet follows in both traditions. While the influence of European disreputable film is evident, I also thought a lot about an American auteur while watching Flux Gourmet, Baltimore’s own John Waters. Waters, too, has tried to access senses not usually accessible in film. While Strickland does so more indirectly using a special perfume on the set of The Duke of Burgundy (2014)* and in Flux Gourmet using the evocative power of shit in Stones’ ongoing struggle with his digestive tract, in one of the collective’s performances, and in including the chemical formula for skatole, the molecule that makes shit smell like shit, on one of the film’s segment title cards.** John Waters famously used Odorama in Polyester (1982), building on 1950s theater gimmicks like Smell-O-Vision and Smell-O-Rama. And, of course, John Waters also used poop to great effect in Pink Flamingos (1972). But the polished “filth” in Flux Gourmet is not building on Hollywood melodramas, but on a different cinematic and artistic history.
The unnamed collective’s performances themselves also remind me of both Karen Finley and Diamanda Galás. When Elle di Elle performs covered in blood as she re-enacts the slaughter of an animal in a slaughterhouse, it reminded me of singer Diamanda Galás covered in blood, using her multiphonic voice to channel the suffering, grief and rage of the AIDS epidemic in her 1990 Plague Mass concerts. And a later performance by Elle di Elle in the film evokes pioneering performance artist Karen Finley performing, “We Keep Our Victims Ready,” naked and smeared in feces-evoking chocolate also in 1990. Finley became a target of right wing wrath, had her National Endowment for the Arts grant taken away due to “indecency,” and her work was some of that used to attack the NEA in the 1990s American culture wars.
In the world of Flux Gourmet, though, these collectives using food preparation and consumption as a medium are mainstream. Lamina tells Stones of seeing sonic caterers perform on television and never thinking she would be part of one. Jan is just one in a line of patrons who have supported collectives at the Sonic Catering Institute apparently for decades. And when Elle accuses Jan of only selecting her collective for the residency because of the novelty of their vegetarianism, Jan notes that she had applications from dozens of collectives and chose Elle, Billy and Lamina over them all. In fact, this residency is so competitive that another collective, the Mangrove Snacks, attempts to artistically terrorize the Institute in retaliation for being snubbed. In this context of sonic catering’s popularity and cultural ascendancy, it becomes difficult to create the transgressive and confrontational work that Elle wants to create. Of course, I love that Strickland has created a world where his interests and the kind of performance his Sonic Catering Band do are widely popular. Just like the world of Lesbian entomologists and lepidopterists he created in my favorite of his flms so far, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). And I am delighted by the palpable sense of amusement with the very idea of such a world that I feel in Flux Gourmet.
If you like performance art, avant garde art history, dry comedies about toxic collectives, binaural sound design* and / or are a fan of Peter Strickland, I highly recommend Flux Gourmet. There is so much to think about and I have barely scratched the surface of the film or even my film notes with these first impressions. If you are impatient with any of these things, I’m not sure you’ll get much out of the film. But if you do watch Flux Gourmet, I cannot emphasize enough wearing your best earphones to experience the soundscapes
*Peter Strickland talks a bit about the perfume, “Je suis Gizelle,” in an interview I was fortunate enough to be able to do with him. Read it here.
**I looked up the chemical formulas on the other title cards. They are for hemoglobin / blood and hyodeoxycholic acid / bile. So, blood, bile, and shit.
I received a review copy of the film from IFC Midnight.
Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, the Book Club for Masochists podcast, and the Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.