Flux Gourmet review – Peter Strickland’s deliciously bonkers tale of art, desire and gut pain

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

British writer-director Peter Strickland, the distinctive film-maker behind such deliciously indefinable mysteries as Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy, says he hopes his latest cinematic chef-d’oeuvre “treats stomach problems responsibly while still pushing the boundaries of taste”. It’s a typically straight-faced statement from a wry artist whose habitually ritualised, fetishistic films have consistently straddled the boundary between the satirical and the serious, the playful and the profound. If Strickland’s last feature, In Fabric (2019), was an episode of Are You Being Served? as reimagined by David Lynch, then this “gastrointestinal drama” feels like an episode of The Galloping Gourmet being watched by a drunken doctor while performing a colonoscopy. It’s a bizarre exercise in culinary theatre, in which trapped wind becomes a source of tragicomic pain and a book of “lovely recipes and fun tips to preserve your man’s love” provokes anti-patriarchal hilarity.

Strickland regular and spectacular screen presence Fatma Mohamed is typically imperious as Elle di Elle, frontwoman of a culinary performance collective (“every collective needs a leader”) comprising goth-haired Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) and food-secretive Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed). Propitiously, they have landed a residency at the Sonic Catering Institute, a temple of culinary and alimentary performance led by the kohl-eyed, ruby-lipped Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). Here, they will workshop their latest project, observed by an audience who will join them in orgiastic aftershow appreciation (“such flamboyant intimacy”), all duly documented by the institute’s docile “dossierge”, Stones (Makis Papadimitriou).

The film makes us laugh because we do actually care about these utterly preposterous characters

Elle dedicates her art to a kindergarten teacher whose allergic reaction to a “chocolate wonder cake” dramatically demonstrated how something “so tasty for me could be so deadly for her” – a transformative realisation. But when an early “dead-pig” performance (Elle is vegetarian) involving blood-splattered nudity encounters minor sonic hitches, Stevens demands to be involved in the creative process, concluding: “You can keep the epicurean toxicity, but indulge me on the flanger, please.” To Elle, this is fighting talk, an attempt to compromise her artistic vision – although it transpires that her relationships with both Billy and Lamina have already strayed well beyond the bounds of purist propriety. Meanwhile, a rival culinary performance group, the Mangrove Snacks, do unspeakable things to terrapins (“they can’t even do transgression very well”) , and Jan offers to lay an egg in Billy’s young mouth while pinching his nipples. But perhaps she’s just thinking about that flanger …

The fact that Luis Buñuel would have struggled to match the outlandish conceptual surrealism of Flux Gourmet somehow doesn’t undercut the peculiar emotional sincerity with which Strickland constructs these absurdist encounters. Like Rob Reiner’s mock-rock doc This Is Spinal Tap (which Strickland cheekily cites as an influence alongside Robert Bresson, Marcel Marceau and “the Viennese actionists for the corporeal shock value”), Flux Gourmet makes us laugh because, on some bizarre level, we do actually believe in and care about these utterly preposterous characters and situations. Yes, the primary register may be ironic, abstract and occasionally exasperating. Yet as with In Fabric’s incantatory speeches about a washing machine’s “wigwag and its rotational pull” (delivered by Leo Bill, who has a cameo here as technical assistant Wim), we laugh because otherwise we might cry, or swoon.

Underpinning all this madness is Papadimitriou’s wonderfully melancholic portrayal of Stones, a tortured soul (he calls himself “just a hack”) with painfully flatulent bowels who submits to horrifying public indignities, and whose troubled, world-weary expression will ensure that you never laugh at farts again. None of which is to suggest that Flux Gourmet isn’t huge fun. It is! From the jaw-dropping costumes sported by Christie to a bubbling, troubling soundscape that slips from amplified gas to Gene Pitney warbling Backstage over the closing credits, this walks the full length of the sensory counter. It may not have the giallo horror hook of Berberian Sound Studio, the erotic thriller allure of The Duke of Burgundy or the pulpy pull of In Fabric, but Strickland devotees will find plenty to chew on as the film makes its strange path through the digestive canals of their twisted imaginations.