What if the primary sensory goal of cooking were to stimulate the ears? What if you experienced a movie through your nostrils and taste buds, or felt it in your gut? These bizarre, intriguing questions are part of the foundation, the spine – the sofrito – of “Flux Gourmet,” the fifth feature by the British writer-director Peter Strickland.
The first, “Katalin Varga” (2009) was a revenge drama set in Transylvania. Since then, Strickland has departed both from genre conventions and from known geography, conjuring 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 horror again in “In Fabric” (2019); and now cuisine.
Not the kind you eat – though there are some awkward dinner gatherings and episodes 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 whine of blenders and the sizzle of vegetables dropped in hot oil.
One such group, which cannot agree on a name, has been granted a residence at an “institute devoted to culinary and alimentary performance” in a converted rural manor house. One narrative thread follows the simmering tensions between Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), who is in charge of the place, and Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, a Strickland stalwart), the visionary, vegetarian leader of the troupe. Elle adamantly rejects the slightest hint of constructive criticism from Jan, who believes that her largess entitles her to be heard.
This tension exacerbates the rivalry within the group. Elle may be the leader, but her bandmates, a floppy-haired emo kid (Asa Butterfield) and an angular avant-gardist (Ariane Labed) have nascent creative agendas of their own. There’s also an element of sexual intrigue, as often happens when aesthetic passions are inflamed. Meanwhile, a rejected band of culinary artists lurks in the shadows, threatening violence.
All of this is chronicled – mostly in Greek voice-over with English subtitles – by a saturnine fellow named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who works as the institute’s “dossierge.” A writer by trade and a wallflower by temperament, he observes Elle and her colleagues, filming their meetings and performances, interviewing them together and taking notes on their squabbles.
The poor man has troubles of his own. Digestive troubles, to be precise, which disrupt his sleep and sour his already gloomy fashion. The resident doctor (Richard Bremmer) is a pompous boor, and Stones spends a lot of his time in the lavatory, the rest of it wearing the unmistakable grimace of a man holding back considerable gas.
There is obvious comic potential in his predicament, but Strickland doesn’t exploit it in the obvious ways. This isn’t “Blazing Saddles”; audible flatulence is restricted to a single plaintive note, rather than a full symphony. But the unheard music of Stone’s lower intestinal tract is nonetheless a key structural element, organizing “Flux Gourmet” into an elegant fugue of contrapuntal themes: grossness and refinement; pleasure and disgust; appetite and discipline.
The film isn’t so much an allegory or fantasy as a witty philosophical speculation on some elemental human issues. 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, infinitely variable ways.
“Flux Gourmet” is Strickland’s funniest film to date, with more outright jokes than its predecessors, and a few sublime visual gags, many of them involving Jan’s outfits (they were designed by Giles Deacon, with hats by Steven Jones). It’s like a Restoration comedy run through a John Waters filter and sprinkled with Luis Buñuel itching powder.
Maybe such comparisons are unfair. Certainly Elle insists on the absolute integrity and originality of her work, and even as “Flux Gourmet” mocks her self-seriousness it also defends her dignity. Mohamed, fully committed to the bit, allows you to believe that Elle is both a courageous genius and a complete nut. I’m inclined to think Strickland is more of the former than the latter. I’ve never encountered a flavor palette quite like the one he assembles here, and while this movie isn’t always easy to digest, it’s a taste very much worth acquiring.
Not rated. Running time: 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.