Peter Strickland goes Greek Weird Wave with Flux Gourmet, a bizarre farce of sorts poking mild fun specifically at experimental theatre groups and more generally at artistic snobbery.
The Sonic Catering Institute is an artistic foundation run out of a baronial mansion by Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), an eccentric, persnickety, over-enunciating control freak who routinely gives over her artistic space to itinerant groups to produce spectacular art works featuring food and sound. The current incumbents are a threesome led by the highly strung and forthright Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed). Her assistants, Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed) and Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield), provide the food prep and sonic backgrounds while Elle dances, often naked. After each performance the audience is invited to show its appreciation of the artists by taking part in a massive orgy with them.
Watching these goings-on at one remove are the institute’s hugely self-regarding doctor (Richard Bremmer) and a hapless hack journalist called Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who is meant to be writing about Elle’s troupe but is suffering such bad flatulence that he can barely think straight. Meanwhile, in the outside world, a gang of increasingly aggressive would-be performers who didn’t get the gig Elle’s crew got are launching sporadic vandalistic assaults on the institute.
The setup is mildly reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster – odd people in a strange institute under siege – and the link to the Weird Wave goes through Labed, who starred in one of the early manifestations of the genre, Attenberg, and is also the partner of Lanthimos, who directed one of its biggest hits, Dogtooth. The fact that Papadimitrious is Greek and does all his voiceover in his native language can’t be an accident either.
Greek Weird Wave makes the everyday odd and the odd everyday, and there’s plenty of that going on in Strickland’s homage. But there’s also a good belt of British farce in there too, à la Ray Cooney or Brian Rix, hence the fart gags. The way Elle, constantly pushing back against Jan’s “helpful” interventions, hisses “Jan Stevens” every time Jan enters the room comes from farce’s on-off relationship with the fourth-wall. As for farce’s yes-no relationship with sex, at one point Jan waves fingers that have recently been up her vagina under the labile Billy’s nose, hypnotising him into doing her nefarious bidding.
With its lurid lights and sonic bravado, Strickland fans will love it, others possibly less so. Since his breakthrough with the relatively conventional revenge drama Katalin Varga in 2009, Strickland has ploughed a furrow of arthouse pastiche – almost on his own apart from the likes of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani – in a string of increasingly bizarro horror-flavoured films. First up, giallo got the treatment in Berberian Sound Studio. Then in The Duke of Burgundy Strickland’s attention shifted to aping the European porn/horror crossover of the early 1970s. It was possession horror, again 1970s style, in In Fabric, a strange tale of a possessed red dress.
Like In Fabric, Flux Gourmet works best as a series of standalone funny or grotesque scenes – the one where Elle dances provocatively with a stool sample from Stones’s unhappy intestinal tract while Lamina creates a soundscape of treated white noise and Billy chops carrots is probably the film’s highlight, and if that doesn’t sound like your sort of thing, there are other films to watch.
Christie, who after playing Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones could probably have done anything, throws herself gamely into the role of the absurd Jan Stevens, Labed, Bremmer and Papadimitriou hit all their marks as characters who don’t have an awful lot to do, and Mohamed is inspired as the borderline demented tortured artistic soul Elle di Elle, a ridiculous name though outdone by that of Lamina Propria, a Latin medical term for a constituent part of the mucous membrane. It’s Butterfield who comes out of it best, against expectation, as the borderline normal young man somehow caught up in a hothouse arthouse where everyone cordially hates each other and normal behaviour is essentially frowned upon.
Through it all hovers the suspicion, as it did with In Fabric, that Strickland fancies himself as a comedy writer, but he’s better at the weird than the hilarious and his jokes often land flat, though the sight of Marcel Marceau at a crucial juncture was funny, and ending the film with Gene Pitney’s tortured tonsils belting out the quasi hysterical song Backstage as the credits rolled summed up the overall tone succinctly.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022