Flux Gourmet, the audacious new film from Peter Strickland, follows experimental noise makers (played by Fatma Mohamed, Asa Butterfield and Ariane Labed), during their residency at the Sonic Catering Institute, where Jan (Gwendoline Christie) is their eccentric hostess and Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) is the journalist chronicling the “work”. Unhappily, Stones is plagued by digestive issues and constant flatulence. The latter is a source of crippling social anxiety, not least because Stones is sharing a dorm with the musicians.
Food intolerance has seldom been so colourfully or nightmarishly presented.
“I realised that there were many things around this idea from the stomach that we are not careful enough about,” says Strickland. “We were ignorant, especially with flour, or anything that can cause autoimmune issues or allergens such as nuts and so on. This whole world opened up about how many people can’t have certain foods and how much ignorance there is about that. Even now people see gluten-free as a lifestyle choice. You order a gluten-free pancake in a restaurant but it’s cooked on the same surface as regular pancakes so it’s completely unsuitable for a celiac person. A lot of people are very lovely and supportive but there’s always someone who gets defensive or rolls their eyes. We tried to give it some dignity and to take a look into the anxiety of somebody who just can’t control their stomach. Flatulence is normally done as comedy in film. Which is fair enough. There’s a place for that. But if someone has anaphylactic shock, that can never be funny.
“I didn’t do this film as some kind of goodwill gesture. But, you know, I think it is a nice byproduct.”
To date, Strickland has created such pleasing fantasies as a killer dress (In Fabric), a role-playing lesbian lepidopterologist (The Duke of Burgundy), and Transylvanian rape-revenge (Katalin Varga). Flux Gourmet harks back to the noisy vegetables of Berberian Sound Studio, a sensory horror in which a sound engineer (Toby Jones) goes slowly mad while working on an Italian giallo. The sounds and experimental music at the heart of Flux Gourmet were inspired by his own pioneering sonic career as a member of The Sonic Catering Band, a music concrete outfit that created tracks from cooking processes.
We would cook a meal, record the cooking, and try to document it. Eat the meal, of course, and treat the sound the same way you treat the food. You take the quarter-inch tape, chop it up, layer it, loop it, chop it up, process it
“Sound is my hobby,” says Strickland. “I’ll always go back to sound. Just like Todd Haynes always goes back to Douglas Sirk. It was just that’s what we did as part of my life for so long. And in a way I look at it without trying to compare myself to these great film-makers, but if I think of Joanna Hogg with the Souvenir films, or Steven Spielberg with his new film, it’s very much looking back on being young and discovering the joy of making something.”
The process of The Sonic Catering Band, as recreated within the film, is an eccentric joy to behold. Some of the tracks used date to 1997. Others required new collaborations from original band members Tim Kirby and Colin Fletcher. The props on screen are the band’s real equipment.
“We split up years ago but they were very generous and came back to record for a weekend with me,” says Strickland. “They helped the actors as well and showed them which buttons to press. It was always very methodical. It was not musical. We would cook a meal, record the cooking, and try to document it. So we’re not really performing with that. Eat the meal, of course, and treat the sound the same way you treat the food. You take the quarter-inch tape, chop it up, layer it, loop it, chop it up, process it. So we’re kind of mirroring the process of cooking. It’s just a very basic surrealist idea of taking something very domestic - at least to Western ears - and shifting it into a gallery context. And how that teaches you how to listen anew. I got that maybe from Alan Splet with Eraserhead. You can ignore all these sounds like a radiator and try to delete them from a film. Or you amplify them and bring them to the foreground and try to find the beauty in that.”
For many critics and commentators, the casting of Suntan star Makis Papadimitriou and The Lobster’s Ariane Labed place Flux Gourmet adjacent to the Greek Weird Wave.
“The Greek thing is important because I’m half Greek,” suggests the director. “It’s not because of this thing we call the Greek Weird Wave. I knew Ariana anyway, socially and I thought she could fit that part. Ariana speaks Greek which is way, way better than my Greek. Even though she’s not Greek. And Makus. I saw him in Chevalier which I thought was a great film. And I saw him in Suntan. And he just had what I was looking for. A lot of it is me connecting with my Greek side. I’ve always wanted to do that since I wrote my first feature script in 1997. And I question that now, with this current post-Brexit nightmare, I was always very fluid and easy about being both British and Greek. It’s a weird time for me because I’m currently being denied my Greek heritage by officials.”
Maybe it’s down to Greek heritage. But it’s difficult to place Strickland in a film industry that’s broadly characterised by kitchen sink realism or Richard Curtis-style comedies of manners.
“I guess the British directors that I really love feel a bit European,” says Strickland. “Or they are a bit European. Powell and Pressberger - Pressberger obviously having Hapsburg descent. Nic Roeg. I‘m not sure why he feels European to me but he does. Peter Greenaway. I was a big Derek Jarman fan. He was very English - or I should say British - in some ways. But there’s a flavour of Pasolini. It’s hard to put into words. I think having watched many European films, being half Greek myself, and having moved to Europe and made friends over there, I guess my films just naturally ended up that way.”
It’s odd to think of Strickland - who lived for many years in Budapest with his Hungarian wife - stuck in the post-Brexit UK. Strickland’s wonderful, idiosyncratic and very European films have enlivened the cinematic landscape since his semi-miraculous 2009 debut feature, Katalin Varga. With a few well-regarded short films to his credit - including the Berlin Film Festival-selected Bubblegum - Strickland headed to Romania with a small inheritance from an uncle. He shot Katalin Varga for £28,000 over 17 days with a crew of 11 people and a focus-puller, who worked for free. Post-production, Strickland soon ran out of money and retreated to a day job in his native Reading. Finally, two Romanian producers - Oana and Tudor Giurgiu - came onboard, allowing Strickland to finish a film that would ultimately compete for Berlin’s Golden Bear and win the European Film Award for European Discovery of the Year in 2009.
His subsequent film-making adventures have been easier, though not by much.
“The Duke of Burgundy was straightforward,” he recalls. “I think it was two years from having the idea to getting it on the screen. That was the sweet spot. But now it’s getting hard. The whole system of public money means that after four or five films, it’s time to leave the nest. Which I I completely get. They have to fund new filmmakers. Obviously I had fall-outs and arguments with public money people. But at the same time, they were risk-takers. They would allow a space to try things and if you failed, still support you. So it’s a lot tougher. I’m not quite sure how to navigate it. I had 14 days with the actors and an extra three days for pickups for Flux Gourmet. That’s quite a lot of pressure. Again, that’s no one’s fault. I’m writing for Element Pictures quite a bit. I quite enjoy having another job. It’s a very different headspace. Someone comes to you with a book and you’re more like a tailor. It’s not my baby. And I’m happy to do it.”
- Flux Gourmet opens September 30