“I just like to be in control of how I am portrayed,” says radical vegetarian, feminist and performance artist Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed) near the beginning of Peter Strickland‘s Flux Gourmet. “Don’t we all?”, replies her patron Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). Elle is the latest resident at the highly selective Sonic Catering Institute, an artists’ retreat in the country for musicians who place cooking at the centre of their work, and she is engaged, right from the start, not only in a power struggle with the two younger members of her sound collective – both her ex lovers – Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), but also with the Institute’s director Jan. Soon this struggle will come to focus, absurdly, on Billy’s occasional, brief use of a flanger pedal during their performances. “I’m just trying to protect your vision,” Jan will insist, as she argues that the flanger’s distorting effect is too disruptive of “a connection to the source material – a semblance of what the sound once was” that she regards as essential to the Institute’s projects. Elle rejects Jan’s advice outright on two separate grounds: firstly, that the whole point of her art is to abstract itself from its grounded foundations (“Why do it if it remains in the culinary context?”); and secondly, that while Jan may be funding their stay at the Institute, Elle remains the creative artist.
In other words, Flux Gourmet is a deeply reflexive work. For these debates, over the conflict between realism and abstraction in art, and over the integrity of an artist’s vision in a commercial world, are no doubt often also on Strickland’s own mind and close to his heart as he strives to make strange, surreal films like this one without having to compromise his intentions too much in a market increasingly oriented towards populist, popcorn pabulum. As these three musicians argue amongst themselves, test out ideas and tentatively put their new material before audiences, Strickland shows how their experiences and inspirations are transformed into art, while himself matching and mirroring their transgressive acts with his own film, so that both works – Elle’s and Strickland’s – are seen (and heard) developing simultaneously as poiumena of recipe-driven productivity.
That reflexivity is further reinforced by the way that the film plays like the cinematic equivalent of a roman à clef, full of references to its writer/director’s filmography and indeed biography. The vegetables arrayed and miked up on a table recall the food-focused foley work depicted in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012); the audio recording of a woman describing a person’s erotic submission to being used as a human toilet evokes the urolagnia from Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014), as does the idyllic rural setting; and the hypnotic retail shopping sessions, the affair of Christie’s character with a younger man, and the cutaways to a leering character played by Richard Bremmer whenever masturbation is mentioned, all allude to Strickland’s In Fabric (2018). Moreover, even if it is suggested that ‘Sonic Catering’ has long been a widespread, mainstreamed musical mode in this film’s hermetic world, with Elle’s group just one of many exponents over the decades, in reality one of the only – and entirely niche – Sonic Catering Bands in existence is the one which Strickland himself dreamt up and in which he cooked/participated from 1996 till 20151To my knowledge, the only other performers to record live cooking are The Hafler Trio & the Sons of God, on their 1993 live album Resurrection. Even the subtitles of the film’s different sections (‘The Mouth is the Light Thereof’, ‘The Stomach is the Plight Thereof’, ‘The Bowel is the Night Thereof’) are minor variants on the title of a pre-existing track from The Sonic Catering Band (‘The Lamb is the Light Thereof’, 2002) that appears, alongside others, on the film’s soundtrack. We are very much in Strickland’s aesthetic world here.
The narrator/protagonist of Flux Gourmet is Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), an impoverished writer employed by Jan to film, interview and document the Institute’s residents. Forced by circumstances to be a ‘hack’ when he longs to be writing about “thoughts, feelings, questions”, Stones too is a frustrated artist. Despite having to share a room with his subjects, Stones tries to remain an aloof observer, not least because he is embarrassed by an emerging gastric condition which makes his breath stink, his belly bloat and his bowels constantly flatulent. Stones suffers, at first in silence, through a worsening disease that he also finds increasingly being incorporated into Elle’s performances. After all, his alimentary ailments are part of the digestive system whose nourishment is already being exploited by Elle’s collective for their art, so that Stones’ dyspepsia can be used to anchor and embody all their ethereal noodlings. Stones remains ambivalent about seeing “something so private sacrificed for the sake of art” – but his own gastrointestinal issues, treated with far more sympathy by the film itself than by the Institute’s arrogant Dr Glock (Bremmer), complement the dysfunction bubbling and gurgling toxically within the group, in what becomes an endoscopic journey through the creative process, from fresh start to bitter, bilious end.
Here every artist must, for all the loftiness of their creative ambitions, also make enough that their belly is not left empty, and so Flux Gourmet, as its very title implies, never lets us forget that art is produced by as much as for consumers. Elle says that she is willing to do anything for validation from her audience, including acts of self-harm – and that validation is shown by the audience’s post-performance up-close intimacy with her body. Meanwhile Jan will let Billy eat her out in order to achieve her own manipulative ends. Even recessive, unassertive, artistically overlooked Stones yearns finally to be “a part of something”, and will achieve this through a grotesque onstage act of flesh-eating communion. And so the film shows that everyone, from financiers to artists to viewers, has their place, often shifting, in the creative food chain.
Strickland’s world is a place of fantasy. It is where nipple-squeezing and egg-oriented fetishes are indulged, where rejected bands conduct guerrilla campaigns against patrons of the arts, and where audiences express their adulation by paying orgiastic ‘tribute’ to their beloved artists. It is also, occasionally, where far more repellent taboos, of a kind that would not be out of place in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) or Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), have been carefully contrived, much like Elle’s performances, to shock and disgust the viewer (Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, 1987, seems another influence, as does Greenaway’s love of rhythmic structures, ludic motifs and colour-coded stylisations). Yet Strickland also occasionally pulls aside the curtains to reveal the fakery within, exposing the reality behind the fiction, and the point where the art lies. For in this unstable world where true feelings are staged through processing, props and artifice, blood can after all just be soup, shit can just be chocolate mousse, and even death can be contrived as part of a challenging, cathartic, literally purging entertainment. Here the boundaries between performance and life are not always clearcut, and control over portrayal can prove elusive, even illusory.
Funny in every sense, this mad meta movie insists on its own uncompromised vision. Garnished with Strickland’s usual Seventies visual coding and precise, unsettling sound design, Flux Gourmet is a difficult but rewarding film for sophisticated palates – a self-concocting, self-critiquing, self-consuming feast for the eyes, ears and outré tastes, leaving the viewer with plenty to digest once the meal is over.
strap: Peter Strickland’s latest traces the dyspeptic power struggles in a group of experimental cooks-cum-musicians on an artists’ retreat
© Anton Bitel
- 1To my knowledge, the only other performers to record live cooking are The Hafler Trio & the Sons of God, on their 1993 live album Resurrection