In Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet, there are whole ecosystems of sound: Noises warble and moan and serrate, each one with its own finicky, unpleasant rhythms, until they cohere into something bigger. In Strickland’s world, this is “sonic catering,” an immersive form of performance art which relishes in the peals and clunks of kitchen appliances and foodstuffs. The saucepans and blenders are mic’d; steam is plucked at like a zither; a performer will sometimes writhe on the ground naked and bloodied in an effort to assume the likeness of a dying pig. Sound is reinventing itself constantly and Strickland is determined to materialize its every flavor.
Set at a remote artist residency, Flux Gourmet surveys a troupe of culinary sound artists: Gawky, punky 20-something Billy (Asa Butterfield) and mild sideliner Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), shepherded by fervid frontwoman Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, a Strickland regular). Jan (Gwendolyn Christie), the comely, glamorous director of the institute, occasionally pops into the fore with something vague and cerebral to say—whenever she’s not being threatened by the Mangrove Snacks, an ominous collective rejected by the residence.
The heart and stomach of Flux Gourmet, though, is not a capital-A artiste, but Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a Greek journalist suffering from gastroesophageal reflux. He emits an “extraordinary stench” and is perennially embarrassed by his condition. Strickland notably doesn’t play his dyspeptic journo for cheap laughs; Stones mainly tails Elle’s band of misfits, conducting interviews and noting squabbles, orgies and squeeze plays. (It’s as if Fleetwood Mac tried their hand at gastronomic ASMR right before recording Rumours.) The story unfurls largely through Stones’ eyes and ears, his own detachment from the discipline being our entryway to the action.
Divvied into three week-long segments—the “mouth,” “stomach” and “bowel,” a trim, corporeal descension that mirrors Stones’ strained digestion—Flux Gourmet is unnervingly neat. Artists endure prodigious routines, perform, deceive and repeat. One might have expected a proverbial bloodbath with all the knifework and alimentary frills, but the film is instead absorbed with digestion. There’s the occasional egg fetish or public colonoscopy, but Strickland isn’t as derisive here as one might think.
The filmmaker is a somewhat unorthodox provocateur, more invested in the mechanics of a gag than its payoff. Flux Gourmet could just as well be considered a project about edging, a cautious accrual of symbols and sexual histories simmering on high heat. Though one can’t help but wonder if the fakeouts which Strickland pokes at—artistry diluted by connotation, like chocolate spread on a canvas masquerading as smeared shit—are fail-safes for his own foibles. Many (myself included) appreciate the first half of Strickland’s 2018 aesthetic-giallo In Fabric for this very reason: The narrative unfurls swiftly, tunneling blood and orgasms into the action before it’s even clear what the action is. Flux Gourmet is all foreplay, a fairly impressive 111-minute bit with an anemic climax.
This film was inspired by his own collective, The Sonic Catering Band, who assembled through a bout of food poisoning and a desire to translate vegetarian food into electronic music. Flux is no biopic, though the earnestness with which Strickland approaches (and strengthens) his project is surely an offshoot of his own history. “We would document the cooking of food. We wouldn’t perform with pots and pans. We would just cook a meal and record that,” said Strickland. “And then afterward, we would treat the sound the same way you treat food. We would chop it up, we would layer it, we would mix it, process it, and so on.”
It’s rare, especially today, for film to actually feel like an audiovisual exercise, but sound designer Tim Harrison and a slew of mixers and foley artists fuse the edible and the audible, allowing them equal footing throughout. Food becomes a constant, lulling whir in our ears; sound, a tangle in the throat.
Flux Gourmet is at its most absorbing when surveying loyalty and discipline, though it’s constantly veering off into big, tenuous ideas about art or fetish. Some of its best moments—clashes about flangers and grocery store pantomimes—gesture toward a final blowout that is muted and undercut. The ending is predictable, if not formulaic for a project so perfused by ideas of Real Artistry. Entrusting the narrative payout to the last minute of a film is always risky, and though Strickland has never been risk averse, he backpedals into a tidy coda. It’s unclear how much Strickland buys into his own buffet versus how much he expects us to, but Flux Gourmet has all the markings of a cult favorite: A hypnotic IBS fairytale that clogs the senses and wrinkles the mind.
Director: Peter Strickland
Writers: Peter Strickland
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou, Richard Bremmer, Leo Bill
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.