Peter Strickland’s cinema is full of textural intimacy. Even when not overtly referencing Italian giallo films, as in Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and In Fabric (2018), he finds common ground with the genre’s masters in his unrelenting fetishism, his urge to meticulously catalog and probe every possible object, surface, and sound. He’ll focus on the pearlescent membrane of soap bubbles, or the gentle folds of a silk chiffon dress. Closeups of sizzling cuts of red meat in an oily skillet open his latest feature, Flux Gourmet. The offbeat satire follows the creative differences within a collective of “sonic caterers” — performance artists who generate soundscapes from the preparation and manipulation of food. Documenting their process is the feeble self-deprecating journalist Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), whose gastrological challenges place him at a remove from both medium and subject matter.
Flux Gourmet is in many ways Strickland’s most personal film. It fixates on food, the limits of the body, and what happens when art is subject to outside interference. The collective’s attempts to shock and upset their audiences stem from both an honest desire to rebel against those who would sanitize their work and a lack of any sufficient ethos. (They can’t even agree on a name for their group.) What good is transgression if it doesn’t come naturally? For Strickland, it usually does. His films are undeniably perverse, often fixating on the intricacies of sexual power play — a preoccupation that crescendoed with the magnificent The Duke of Burgundy (2014). But these perversions are buoyed by earnest compulsion.
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In this regard, Flux Gourmet is somewhat aberrant. Its playfulness and eroticism are frequently eclipsed by a tendency to posture. The movie lapses into pure meaning and/or intention, asking the characters to bear the full weight of its central culinary metaphor, and while that metaphor is imaginative, it’s significantly less complex than those of Strickland’s earlier films. The collective’s members — Elle (Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed), and Billy (Asa Butterfield) — are little more than caricatures. They’re all entertaining to watch, but provide little opportunity for discovery. Truly provocative and funny moments, like Billy being cartoonishly hypnotized by the smell of his lover’s vagina, are undercut by lengthy diatribes that tell us less about the characters than the thematic ends they serve.
As a passive subject to his addled guts and the whims of the collective, Stones is an exception to this. His digestive struggles are portrayed with remarkable nuance and sympathy, puncturing the film’s sterility with distinctly human pain. His winces, apologetic mumblings, and eventual euphoria upon discovering the cause of his suffering ground an otherwise-inaccessible world. His ailments are humorous only inasmuch as they remind viewers of their own. This arc, broadly about a writer learning to bridge the gap between himself and the art that moves him, is enough to render the film a success. Even at his most uneven, Strickland’s experiments are of great interest, each of his films granting a view into a colorfully obsessive mindset. It’s unfortunate that in a work so openly about art, such obsession often seems secondary.
Flux Gourmet opens in select theaters June 24.