Peter Strickland is cinema’s elegant poet of fetish and rapture and oddity, creating movies that are like double-gatefold electro-pop concept albums full of deadpan not-exactly-comedy and strange mitteleuropaïsch pastiche. After his relatively conventional and heroically self-funded debut in 2009, the psychological drama Katalin Varga, Strickland moved into horror and eroticism – or, at any rate, into a world stylistically adjacent to scary or sexy, with his quasi-giallo homages: Berberian Sound Studio in 2012, with Toby Jones as the tormented sound engineer; The Duke of Burgundy in 2014, about BDSM; and In Fabric in 2018, about a haunted red dress. Now he has gone even further out on his slender limb with this pedantically bizarre creation – in which Peter Greenaway’s influence is making itself felt – occupying a precarious position in its own created world. Flux Gourmet is sometimes funny and always exotic, and every moment has his distinctive authorial signature. But I am starting to wonder if his style is becoming a hipster mannerism with less substance, and a less live-ammo sense of actual danger.
The setting is an English country house, which is a centre for research into “sonic cooking”. It hosts a regular prestigious residency for an up-and-coming auditory-cuisine collective: that is, a group of creative people who are into cooking as an experimental live event, combined with live Radiophonic Workshop-type sound creations, with – as it were – microphones shoved into butter and theremins set up near the consommé. Over a few days, the group is invited to workshop its food-sound ideas, discussing things with the centre’s various advisers, climaxing in a big showpiece event on the final night.
The centre’s director is Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), who wears a peculiar flouncy Abigail’s Party gown of the sort we saw in Strickland’s In Fabric. The Greek actor Makis Papadimitrou plays Stones, whose job is to interview the residents for what appears to be an in-house journal. Stones suffers terribly from flatulence, which requires visits to the supercilious resident physician Dr Glock (Richard Bremmer), who keeps boasting about his classical learning. And Stones’s complaint is even more embarrassing as he has to share a kind of mixed-dorm with the resident sonic-cooking group: Elle (Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed) and Billy (Asa Butterfield), whose confession about his egg fetish leads to an emotional bonding with Jan. Meanwhile, an embittered collective called the Mangrove Snacks, furious at not being allowed a residency of their own, are preparing a violent revenge assault.
It is strange and silly, unearthly and self-indulgent all at once. There are some real laughs when Jan questions the group’s use of a “flanger” – the word’s innate comedy is savoured. But as to how hand-on-heart funny this film actually is– that is another question: I suspect Flux Gourmet is going to have claims to comedy made on its behalf that are beside the point. It is certainly deeply and uncompromisingly weird, and it always has the courage of its own weird convictions. There are no ironic winks to the audience about how absurd everything is.
But what is startling about the “sonic cooking” contrivance is that it is so unreal, so confected, that the ostensible content of the movie collapses and we are left with just style: the creepy surfaces, the hairstyles, the gothic interiors, the closeups, the title cards with their chemical compounds along the bottom. Flux Gourmet may yet have a claim to cult-favourite status, but Strickland has given us a stronger, realer taste in the past.