Surrealism is at its best when it is about many metaphorical things while also being just about itself. The surreal worlds these works inhabit are well realised and distinct, even if the logic they abide by isn’t the logic we know. It is tempting to say that Flux Gourmet is a film about artistic responsibility, about art’s ability to reflect, about repression and is, to a large extent, about living with a health condition. But, even more so, Flux Gourmet is a film about a group of sonic caterers undertaking a residency at an institute for culinary and alimentary performance, all while being chronicled by a writer (who suffers from a yet undiagnosed gastrointestinal issue), and the conflicts that come with all of this.
Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to make sense. But, it certainly commits to its world of madness. It all orbits around the sonic caterers, a pair of noise musicians fronted by a performance artist who use food preparation as a way of creating an audio performance. Pans on hobs are mic’d up, as are chopping boards; blenders are played to a rhythm; flangers are set to settings that may be too high (masking the culinary source) and so on. In general, a variety of music production equipment is hooked up to different ways of preparing food. And, in front of all of this, Fatma Mohamed’s Elle performs alienating, or just challenging, performance art (things like pretending to be a dead or dying animal, or lathering oneself in faeces. You know, performance art). The narrative is a narrative of relationship dynamics, one of power struggles and fallouts. Our view into this world is through Makis Papadimitriou, who plays the writer, Stones. He, as an outsider, is aligned with the viewer. His status as a writer (he is going to produce a book on this whole experience) allows for smart exposition, including interview scenes where characters are able to explain this strange world, and their motivations, to him.
But, even these moments of exposition are part of a wider thematic tapestry. We learn over time not to trust everything we hear, as we see how performance goes beyond the stage and is part of the very identity of these sonic caterers. At this point it is worth pointing out how great the names for everything are in this film. These words carry comedy in them, inherently funny constructions that echo through the film as punchlines, but that also feel true to the world. They feel like the kind of pretentious terms these characters would use. In general, the script is delightful. Characters bend words around in mannered ways, though each has their own distinct way of communicating. There is clear character differentiation through vocal habits, yet the film still has its very own voice. It is the rhythm of the dialogue, a purposefully stilted deadpan approach that is in keeping with the overall direction, that ties it all together. It is an utterly bizarre work, but it is cohesive in this surrealism and works all the better for it.
Key parts of this whole are the visual and sound design. The latter has always been a strength of director and writer Peter Strickland. His soundscapes are immersive, abstract and abrasive, all at the same time. The focus on sound creation harkens back to Berberian Sound Studio (2012), a film about a foley artist working on Italian horror in the ’70s, but the wider soundscape links into Strickland’s wider work. The experiments with ASMR, found in In Fabric (2018) and Cold Meridian (2020), underscore a lot of Flux Gourmet. The sound is clearly designed around having a tangible impact on the viewer, as important to the emotional range of the film as any of the visuals (and a vital part of anchoring the visuals themselves). At points, it has the straight up aggression of GUO4 (2019), making this truly, even on a sonic level, a real culmination of what Strickland has been working on throughout his career. Add to all of this the chiastic power dynamics of The Duke of Burgundy (2014) and you have a film that is very much Peter Strickland. Truly, if you’ve found yourself bewitched by his wider catalogue, you will find so much to love here. It both plays in a known space and expands his range. Though, even the known space of Strickland is one of divergence and targeted audience discomfort, a unique experience even with its repetition.
Of course, Flux Gourmet is the very definition of a film that is not for everybody. It has no interest in mollifying a viewer, or even abiding by their structural or narrative expectations. The film doesn’t care for closure or explanation, even the world critical information is laced with mistruth and misdirection. Flux Gourmet is about delivering something different, it is about existing on its own wavelength. It has a calculated weirdness, a legitimate oddness that doesn’t ever feel like weird for the sake of weird. It is reminiscent of great works like David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) where the brain-melting surrealism is grounded by recognisable emotions and fears. The parental anxiety and sense of existential isolation at the core of that film underpin its madness, making it meaningful. Flux Gourmet, similarly, is stuffed with meaning. It is a playful and comedic work but it still manages to make a variety of smart observations on the nature of performance and identity.
Notably, Flux Gourmet does an excellent job with understanding and compassion. Characters behave atypically but, even when judged by other characters, they are understood by the film. The overall lens is an empathetic one, especially towards our fascinations (even our kinks) and the conditions we live with. The presentation of gastrointestinal illness is really rather moving. As a person who lives with a diagnosed gastrointestinal issue, seeing a film take it seriously, and base so much of its conflict around the actual conflicts of living with this, was incredibly refreshing. Placing these concerns with Stones, our voice of normality, is a smart way of normalising and of generating empathy. It is all part of the wider picture, also, of characters trying to get by in spite of how the wider world sees them as flawed. It all goes back to how the wildness of everything is taken seriously, allowing it to be really meaningful. These are normal people in abnormal situations, in a way that only foregrounds their normality for the viewer. Yes, it’s a film about sonic caterers, but it’s about the human condition and how our lives collide with each other. But, again, it’s also very much about sonic catering.
It is a special film, really, all of Peter Strickland’s films are. It is not quite as sharp as his masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy, and it doesn’t feel quite as dynamic and potent as In Fabric. It is brilliant, though. It is an unwieldy thing, and doesn’t sustain itself quite as well as his former features, but it is never not one of the most (if not the most) interesting and unique films you will see this year. It is a film that gets the mind going, that allows one to reflect and actually understand people more (the content around illness actually makes it feel like a work of real social value) and that has a great sense of humour. There is this classically British dryness to the comedy here, the flat affects and smart word choices pushing banality upon surrealism in a way that’s just hilarious. The whole thing works, it works because it is messy and divergent and alienating. It works because you let it work, it works because it mirrors the sonic caterers at its core: yes, it’s random and atonal, but in that wall of noise (both visual and aural) is artistry and emotion.