Travel past the edge of the woods, located on the periphery of some unnamed European country, and you’ll find a large house. Inside, an institute dedicated to sponsoring artists who deal in “culinary and alimentary performance” has set up shop. Its mission: giving a safe space to those who push the boundaries of good taste, literal and otherwise. The informal organization’s head, Jan Stevens (Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie), is currently offering a residency to a trio led by Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), a woman dedicated to taking on the patriarchy one avant-garde, kitchen-based protest piece at a time. She’s temporarily dubbed her collective “Elle and the Gastric Ulcers,” until she can come up with a better name.
Elle and her fellow group members, Billy (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina (Ariane Labed), are hashing out an elaborate project involving mixing boards, microphones placed in simmering pots, writhing around nude on the floor and some sort of tomato-based sauce. During the day, the three artists take part in exercises that makes them simulate shopping for groceries while Jan coos ASMR narration. In the evening after dinner, residents read from vintage cooking manuals or regale those present with personal anecdotes. If someone’s work-in-progress performance goes well, everyone pays “tribute” to them, which is a fancy way of saying “orgy.” Meanwhile, a rejected collective known as the Snack Mongrels are plotting something sinister against the institute. And jotting everything down for posterity is a writer (Makis Papadimitriou) who’s having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand, what with his intense acid reflux and some highly gaseous medical issues….
Ever since unleashing the unsettling rape-revenge thriller Katalin Varga on an unsuspecting public back in 2009, British filmmaker Peter Strickland has made a comfortable berth for himself on the fringe of modern Eurosploitation, deconstructing disreputable genres of the distant past like a D.J. mixing beat breaks. To him, there are few titles more prized than “cult filmmaker,” and you get the sense that Strickland is in constant conversation with the ghosts of grindhouse-fodder past. Acquire a taste for his brand of odd, fetishistic takes on giallo stylization and Grand Guignol portraits of psychological meltdowns, and you begin to crave it. Such baroque dialogue! So much outré fashion choices! So many Seventies scary-film clichés in scare quotes, all buffered with a genuine obsession over retrograde pulp and a devoted passion for weapons-grade kink!
You will need to have already developed said appetite for what Strickland dishes out going into Flux Gourmet, however, which can be viewed partially as a satirical jab at the relationship between patrons of the arts and those practice their craft at such folks’ financially underwritten whims. It’s also one of his signature hallucinogenic stews, which stirs in dissonant synthesizer noodlings, submissive/dominant relationships, and a decent amount of sleaze.
The direct references to past high points of lowbrow cinema are kept to a minimum here (in the press notes, he credits his primary influences as the Viennese Actionism movement, Marcel Marceau, the movies of Robert Bresson and This Is Spinal Tap). So are a lot of the usual cheap thrills you get from Strickland’s work, as this cuisine creepfest feels a little unfocused even by the filmmaker’s dreamlike, stream-of-conscious standards. Dip into something like Berberian Sound Studio (2012) or The Duke of Burgundy (2014) — still the greatest love story to ever feature haggling over “human toilet” accoutrements — and you can see how mood bleeds into character motivations and descents into madness. This latest endeavor seems to be missing a few key ingredients in that respect.
And yet: subpar Strickland is better than a lot of modern-day cult filmmakers’ excavations of midnight movie madness. So you do get to sample a fucked-up, four-course meal of gastro-horror, blessed with a lot of anxiety over mortality and one scene involving the smearing of “chocolate” that would make Karen Finley blanch. Add in Christie’s cracked take on authority figures undone by lust, Butterfield’s floppy hair as a sight gag and the use of a colonoscopy as performance art that comes close to being poignant, and you’re still getting your money’s worth. (This would make a great second half to a double bill with Crimes of the Future, assuming you have a stronger stomach than the movie’s in-house scribe.) It isn’t the best introduction to Strickland’s work, which truly does channel decades’ worth of cinematic psychotronica into something willfully personal and perverse. Should you count yourself among the faithful already: Consider your dinner served.