What if the main sensory objective of cooking was to stimulate the ears? What if you experienced a movie through your nostrils and taste buds, or felt it in your gut? These strange and intriguing questions are part of the foundation, the backbone, the stir-fry, of “Flux Gourmet,” the fifth feature film from British writer-director Peter Strickland.
The first, “Katalin Varga” (2009) was a revenge drama set in Transylvania. Since then, Strickland has strayed from both genre conventions and familiar geography, conjuring up parallel realities organized around particular aesthetic and erotic obsessions: Italian horror and sound design in “Berberian Sound Studio” (2013); entomology and BDSM in “The Duke of Burgundy” (2015); high fashion and Italian terror again in “In Fabric” (2019); and now the kitchen.
Not the kind you eat, although there are some awkward dinners and bouts of surreptitious snacking. Food, in the world of this film, is the music of love. Culinary sound collectives are the equivalent of rock bands, building walls of expressive noise from the hum of blenders and the sizzling of vegetables tossed in hot oil.
One such group, who can’t agree on a name, has been granted residency at an “institute dedicated to culinary and food performance” in a converted rural manor house. A narrative thread follows the simmering tensions between Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), who runs the place, and Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, a Strickland stalwart), the company’s visionary vegetarian leader. Elle adamantly rejects even the slightest hint of constructive criticism from Jan, who believes her generosity entitles her to be heard.
This tension exacerbates rivalry within the group. Elle may be the leader, but her bandmates, a straight-haired emo girl (Asa Butterfield) and an angular edgy (Ariane Labed) have their own budding creative agendas. There is also an element of sexual intrigue, as often happens when aesthetic passions flare. Meanwhile, a shunned gang of culinary artists lurks in the shadows, threatening violence.
All of this is narrated, mostly in Greek voiceover with English subtitles, by a saturnine guy named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who works as the institute’s “dossierge.” A writer by trade and a wallflower by temperament, he watches Elle and her colleagues, films her meetings and performances, interviews them, and takes notes on her disputes.
The poor man has his own problems. Digestive problems, to be exact, that disturb his sleep and sour his already gloomy mood. The resident doctor (Richard Bremmer) is a pompous lout, and Stones spends much of his time in the bathroom, the rest of the time wearing the unmistakable grimace of a man containing a considerable amount of gas.
There’s obvious comedic potential in his situation, but Strickland doesn’t exploit it in the obvious way. This is not “Burning Saddles”; audible flatulence is restricted to a single whiny note, rather than a full symphony. But Stone’s unheard-of lower intestinal tract music is nonetheless a key structural element that organizes “Flux Gourmet” into an elegant fugue of contrapuntal themes: roughness and refinement; pleasure and disgust; appetite and discipline.
The film is not so much an allegory or a fantasy as an ingenious philosophical speculation on some elementary human questions. We are animals driven by lust, hunger and aggression, but also delicate creatures in love with beauty and abstraction. Those two sides of our nature collide in unexpected and infinitely variable ways.
“Flux Gourmet” is Strickland’s funniest movie to date, with more in-your-face jokes than its predecessors and some sublime sight gags, many of them involving Jan’s outfits (they were designed by Giles Deacon, complete with hats by Steven Jones). . It’s like a Restoration comedy passed through a John Waters filter and sprinkled with Luis Buñuel’s spicy powder.
Perhaps such comparisons are unfair. Certainly, Elle insists on the absolute integrity and originality of her work, and although “Flux Gourmet” mocks her seriousness, she also defends her dignity. Fully committed to the bit, Mohamed lets you believe that Elle is both a brave genius and a complete madwoman. I am inclined to think that Strickland is more of the former than the latter. I’ve never come across a palette of flavors like the one he brings together here, and while this movie isn’t always easy to digest, it’s a flavor well worth acquiring.
Not Rated. Duration: 1 hour 51 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play, and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.