People overuse the term “Lynchian.” Almost nobody and nothing is like David Lynch’s movies. The lone true exception to that rule, if you ask me, is Peter Strickland. The British filmmaker has given us some of the strangest, darkest, most unsettling films this side of Mulholland Drive. Always, and this sets him apart from Lynch, Strickland brings in an air of Eurocult. His stories of mundane people in bizarre scenarios, coupled with oppressive ambient noises and vibrant colors. His latest, Flux Gourmet, is unfortunately a bit of a step backward for me. While he ups the absurdity and grossness, he loses some of what made his previous features so captivating.
Though I’ve still never seen Strickland’s debut film, 2009’s Katalin Varga, I wholly love his subsequent three. 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio was a nightmarish look at feeling like an outsider as a nervous English sound recordist goes to Italy to oversee the post-sync on a new arthouse horror movie. 2014 saw Strickland offer The Duke of Burgundy, a story of a sub/dom lesbian relationship that hearkens back to Bergman’s Persona. And in 2018, Strickland gave us In Fabric, his most outward horror offering about an evil haunted red dress that kills whoever wears it.
All of these movies are weird. I compared Strickland to David Lynch; they were never going to be super straightforward. But within that weirdness is a true visual and auditory master who knows how to unsettle an audience even as he shows absurd and at times comedic scenarios. With Flux Gourmet, all the weirdness is there, as is the ability to make the audience uncomfortable, but gone is any semblance of the dark or cerebral. Instead, it’s a skewering of pretentious artists done in a pretentiously artistic way. And the results are…mixed.
The action takes place fully within the walls and grounds of an English estate which houses an artists residency devoted to “sonic catering.” What could that be? Well it’s sticking various technology into food to create discordant noises. It’s performance art, sort of. But in this world, it’s apparently a thing that exists. The curator of this conservatory is Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) and the current art collective she has at the manor consists of the domineering artist Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), her punk of a surrogate stepson Billy (Asa Butterfield), and her ex-girlfriend Lamina (Ariane Labed). None of them really get along, and Elle constantly butts heads with Jan Stevens. A quite funny running gag is Elle always says Jan’s full name whenever she enters a room, sort of like Seinfeld ruing the name “Newman.”
Witness to all of this is a self-proclaimed “hack” writer named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who is the resident chronicler of each session. He serves as the movie’s narrator as well. Stones, unfortunately for him (and us), has some kind of stomach issue that makes him constantly gassy. Out of politeness, he holds it all day until the middle of the night when he can evacuate his bowels. Except he sleeps in the same barrack as the artists and the bathroom is attached. Oh dear. Throughout the story, he sees the manor’s live-in doctor, the decrepit and pompous Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer) who quotes classic literature and berates Stones for being a writer and not recognizing it.
And that’s kind of the movie. We watch the entire three week intensive and see the various performances, rehearsals, and constant squabbling of the characters. The performances employ a lot of Strickland’s trademark ambient noise and strange visuals, and after every performance, Stones has to observe the traditional post-performance orgy which is just part of the conservancy. The characters almost never give an inkling that what we see is weird or absurd, even though we in the audience can think of nothing else.
I’ve seen various other critical reactions to Flux Gourmet shout out a thread of horror in the movie, and I just don’t see it. All of Strickland’s previous films absolutely did have an element of horror to them. This one, for me, is certainly grotesque and uncomfortable, but it never goes into anything approaching horror for me. And because of that, and the fact that this is easily Strickland’s most straightforward story, means that it never rose above pure absurdism for me. The characters are fine, but their plights never feel real. It’s just ridiculousness and bickering over weird pretentious stuff.
This is certainly not to say Flux Gourmet is wholly without merit. It’s still a Peter Strickland movie and he still has a definite sense of coupling strange things with mundane attitudes. His films are endlessly fascinating even if in this instance the whole didn’t outshine the momentary discomforts. (One performance focusing on Stones’ stool sample is particularly repugnant.) I know for some this is Strickland’s most effective film, but for me it lacks the macabre, hallucinatory pleasures of his earlier works.
3 out of 5
Flux Gourmet hits theaters June 24.