It is impossible to avoid thoughts of David Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future while enduring the latest smorgasbord of peculiarity from Peter Strickland. That is partly to do with an uncanny narrative crossover (the Cronenberg film actually premiered six months after Flux Gourmet, but the films shot at more or the less the same time).
Both works feature medical procedures as a class of performance art. In Crimes of the Future, as is the Canadian master’s way, we were in a skewed, dystopian future that seemed pulled, dripping in viscera, from our own present’s gaping guts. Strickland’s universe — if he will allow us to use that word — has the ickiness of a recent, seedy past. Cronenberg opened up Viggo Mortensen to discover mutating organs. Flux Gourmet has the phlegmatic Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) lie down for a colonoscopy while we watch with tightening sphincter. This is not fun as Woody Woodpecker understood it.
It is also worth noting how both films offer up the leanest, least forgiving versions of their director’s sensibility. Where should you start with Peter Strickland? Maybe with the lush, glossily erotic Duke of Burgundy. Perhaps, the convoluted, rug-pulling Berberian Sound Studio. Not, I think, with the convoluted, occasionally disgusting — but still Stricklandianly excellent — Flux Gourmet. This may be for the hard-core only.
Which is not to suggest there are no points of connection with the normal world. The director’s fifth feature is taking unmistakable swipes at the pretensions of the art scene as it digs around in our uncomfortable relationship with food. We are among a colony of artists dedicated to the business of “sonic catering”. There is less actual messing around with tapes than there was in Berberian Sound Studio, but we do hear quite enough squelching and gurgling from mostly unappetising foodstuffs. Stones, a self-confessed “hack” writer with a severe flatulence problem, has been commissioned to record proceedings within the group. He soon gets caught up in the horrid internal politics and becomes as much participant as observer.
Gwendoline Christie is on predictably regal form — a meld of Princess Margaret and Fanny Craddock — as the institute’s director Jan Stevens. Asa Butterfield plays a younger member with what others describe as an “egg fetish”. Fatma Mohamed, who has appeared in all of Strickland’s features, continues to shoulder the menace of a Dario Argento dominatrix.
Papadimitriou’s Greek voiceover combined with the presence of the similarly Hellenic Ariane Labed kick up reminders of early Yorgos Lanthimos — Labed has featured in his work — but it is part of Strickland’s queasy genius that he shakes off all influences to embrace his own singular perversion of the near contemporary. He has never before been so blinkered in that task. Stones fast becomes neurotically enclosed and even Strickland veterans will, perhaps, yearn for a little more space and fresh air (in contrast to the fetid stuff that presumably clogs up the corridors of the institute). There are wild clothes and committed orgies, but there is never any sense that anyone is having a good time. Content warnings are issued to those uncomfortable with bodily fluids.
What keeps the momentum going is the burbling tension between the warring participants. Strickland has expressed a passion for This is Spinal Tap and Flux Gourmet has much to do with how close confinement causes creative types to claw out one another’s eyes. The characters here are every bit as cleanly drawn as the members of that fictional rock group and, even if they generate less open affection, they also encourage one to take sides.
None more queasy. None more strange. None more alienating. None more off-beige.