At The Sonic Catering Institute, art collectives working with food and sound are given three-week residencies that, in the words of its monied, micromanaging patron Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), involve “the artistic pursuit of alimentary and culinary salvation to be done as public performance.”
This is the pleasurably esoteric, densely atmospheric world of Peter Strickland’s latest venture into psychological-distress-as-ice-cold-comedy, “Flux Gourmet,” and it is by turns scatological, hilarious, art-referential and, ultimately, moving.
For the cleverly-named group leader Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed) and her collaborators Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), all of whom rise, walk and smoke in sync — at first, anyway, before the friction and infighting begins — the prospect of freedom to create their specialized brand of performance is a dream come true. Together they pantomime the process of grocery shopping, attach microphones, effects-generating equipment and amps to their prep stations, then chop and cook vegetables like stylish monks in materialist prayer.
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But Elle di Elle is a control queen to rival The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and it’s her way or the highway. Intentionally transgressive, a master of crafting conceptual packaging for her work, she’s a one-woman Viennese Actionism movement, with a desire to “go further and further into oblivion,” and given to smearing her naked body with various condiments, sauces — and more — in performances (one of which vibrantly evokes Diamanda Galas’s blood-soaked “Plague Mass”).
Elle is also indecisive, quick to blame others for mistakes (she drops a bottle of olive oil on a staircase and makes her bandmates clean it up), determined not to give an inch to her colleagues ideas or to Jan Stevens’ routine yet insidious suggestions and notes, and angry when contradicted.
Rounding out the dysfunctional ensemble is Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), a man with an upset stomach. The shy, reticent, perpetually worried Stones documents the actions and performances of the group, does his best to remain an invisible presence, and endures the gastrointestinal misdiagnoses of the cruel and pompous art groupie Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer). Mostly, though, he spends his time trying desperately to hold in his overwhelming and painful gas.
But Stones, at first presented as peripheral and potentially a source of mere flatulence-based comedy, is the opposite of a walking fart joke. His is the narrating voice, delivering a somewhat detached, Bressonian voiceover regarding the increasingly erratic activity within the confines of the institute as well as within himself. As his worsening condition weaves itself into the narrative, he becomes integral and acts as the catalyst for a shocking but intensely personal performance.
Not content simply to inject one recognizably hurting human being into a setting populated by archly drawn art-world caricatures, Strickland keeps his outlandish creatives tethered to reality, as each one reveals frailty, trauma, and the various yearnings that drove them into unusual working lives on the fringes of expression. Both Billy and Lamina have been romantically involved with Elle, both have perspectives of their own related to their shared work, and both are crashing up against the limits of finding oneself in thrall to a mentor. Butterfield’s and Labed’s performances, by turns bitter and wounded, resist the sidelines, with Mohamed working her now well-established camera-seducing sorcery, as the furious grande dame in their midst.
Mohamed, memorable as the witchy saleswoman in “In Fabric” and the carpenter who builds sex coffins in “The Duke of Burgundy,” is an angular, often mysterious regular in Strickland’s films, infusing everything she touches with stern humor and dark depth.
“Flux Gourmet” is thick with visual humor and isn’t above florid, absurdist critique of its subject matter — a resentful and quite silly guerrilla art group named The Mangrove of Snacks, bent on destruction, pops up from time to time to create violent havoc — but it never lands with a thud on the trite side of satire aimed at art-world excess. That isn’t the point.
Throughout his body of work Strickland has created complex, and frequently funny, characters placed in otherworldly scenarios, driven and frustrated by their own obsessions, stumbling through fraught desires and psychological fractures, and always in need of recognition or self-actualization. If they fail or meet their end in the process, they don’t exist simply to be mocked or tormented.
And then there are Strickland’s formal orchestrations. His planet of sound extends back to his first feature, 2009’s “Katalin Varga,” a rural folk tale of revenge whipped further into rage by its unexpected electronic score. His next, 2012’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” a horror film about sound itself, twists itself inside out with aural evocations of Italian Giallo.
Here, production designers Harold Chapman and Fletcher Jarvis, provide a lush, hermetically sealed environment where cinematographer Tim Sidell (“Berberian Sound Studio”) and Strickland’s editor Matyas Fekete (“The Duke of Burgundy”) collaborate with an extensive art department as well as a lengthy list of sound engineers and musicians (including Strickland himself, who contributed field recordings) all to thrilling, discordant effect.
In his “Notes on Sound,” Robert Bresson wrote: “A sound must never come to the help of an image, nor an image to the help of sound,” and “The ear goes more toward the within; the eye toward the outer.” Strickland, in directing his team, shares conceptual common ground with these aphorisms. Delicate sounds of leaves and slicing knives collide with chaotic blenders that recall electronic noise musician Merzbow. Frequently juxtaposed elements act in direct opposition to each other for maximum volume, friction, chaos, crunch and melancholy.
In the end, it’s a story set in a warped version of a space many people will never visit, one that also captures the universal real-world hunger for understanding that artists and people who support them work toward. Whatever their excesses, Strickland is on their side, much the same as David Cronenberg’s sympathy for his surgery-practicing artists in “Crimes of the Future.” He’s building a case for the function of seemingly esoteric art as a functional tool that can drive its participants — creators and viewers alike — toward transformation.
“Flux Gourmet” opens in U.S. theaters and on VOD June 24.