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FEATURING: Makis Papadimitriou, , Gwendoline Christie, Richard Bremmer, Asa Butterfield,
PLOT: A “culinary performance” art troupe undergoes a one-month residency at the “Sonic Catering Institute,” hampered by cutthroat rivalries and a chronic case of flatulence.
COMMENTS: Covered in tomato pulp, the nameless collective’s lead performer twitches and writhes naked on the floor in front of a select audience. She places a microphone inside her mouth to capture the sounds of her own digestion, then holds the mike to her forehead and repeatedly smacks herself with it, hard. Behind her stand two accompanists dressed in robes of white, manning a sound board connected to a blender and other appliances. They fiddle with knobs, transforming the noises of boiling soup and frying vegetables until the mix emerges as a distorted whale song symphony. Afterwards, the group thinks the performance went badly. But the audience didn’t notice, and is eager to show their appreciation to the performers with the traditional post-show orgy. In her notes the next day, the institute’s patroness complains about the prominence of the flanger in the sonic mix; the group’s leader doesn’t know what that is, but refuses to compromise her vision, on principle.
The absurd conceit of Flux Gourmet is that there is such a thing as “culinary performance,” and that there’s enough of an audience for it so that art institutes dedicated to the practice exist. The social dynamics of the cast, conversely, are believable and played perfectly straight: the manipulative patron, the narcissistic group leader obsessed with her vision, her two argumentative but ultimately submissive followers, the detached “journalist” passionlessly chronicling the affair solely because it’s a paying gig. The group’s rituals are entirely strange: synchronized morning awakenings followed by a one-hour silent walk through the grounds, improv roleplaying sessions where the trio pretend to shop for ingredients, VIP dinners where each of the performers are required to give a ceremonial speech. There’s also a sarcastic, haughty doctor on hand, an inappropriate romantic entanglement built around a fetish, and a group of terrorists sabotaging our crew out of spite because their residency application was rejected. Through it all our narrator, the “docierge” Stones, suffers an undiagnosed digestive problem that’s getting more and more uncomfortable and embarrassing. The primary symptom is constant flatulence.
The subject matter—a surreally unlikely performance art subculture, which gives the director a chance to reflect on his own artistic impulses— makes Strickland’s Flux Gourmet the perfect pairing with Crimes of the Future (2022) (although I can’t say which should serve as the appetizer, since both contain scenes sure to make you lose your appetite). The aesthetic debates in Flux Gourmet are, at least partially, meta-commentaries on Strickland’s style. The patroness’ complaint about the flanger setting is that “when you alter the sound that much you lose all connection to the activity… the best collectives here stretched the elastic of their culinary sounds as far as they could, but there was always a connection to the source material.” Flux Gourmet‘s leader is obstinately attached to her abstractions; after listening to the minor and reasonable suggestions, she slams her fist on the table and screams “I’m the boss!”‘s
Strickland could be slyly satirizing himself in this scene, remembering conversations with producers and financiers who insisted that he tone down some grotesque or overly weird element from one of his previous films. Nevertheless, the debate address a central issue in his mature style. Strickland picks some subject matter (fashion and retail in In Fabric, performance art here) and stretches it as far as he can—while still maintaining some connection to the source material. That connection is revealed through his eye for a real absurdity of his chosen subject, which he twists into a surreal absurdity. If Flux Gourmet isn’t quite as successful as the immediately preceding In Fabric, was, it’s because it isn’t quite as funny. The satirical target here is a type of self-indulgent performance artist that the audience isn’t likely to have much experience with, other than through parodies in other movies. And although observational moments here elicit a chuckle, In Fabric‘s broad comic relief and insane retail propaganda monologues are sorely missed. Flux Gourmet is more of a sly comedy of manners—Strickland’s private joke on the audience is that the cheap, bawdy fart joke you anticipate never comes. Without enough comedy, the film’s flavor, while bold, is simultaneously off-balance, like a dish that is missing some crucial spice—or a song that needs to turn down the flanging just a notch. Nevertheless, adventurous palettes know they can’t go wrong with a serving of Strickland, even if it only primes their appetites for something more substantial.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s a lengthy, languid descent into the weird world of visual arts, but Strickland’s distinct style imbues it all with a sumptuous visual and aural feast… Flux Gourmet offers a smorgasbord of commentary, leaving viewers with a lot to chew on- not all of it so easily digestible. It’s the precise type of strange that’s divisive, but so is art itself.”–Meagan Navarro, Bloody Disgusting (contemporaneous)