‘Flux Gourmet’: Film Review | Berlin 2022

Asa Butterfield and Gwendoline Christie star in the latest from cult British writer-director Peter Strickland.

The strange cinematic universe of Peter Strickland (The Duke of Burgundy, Berberian Sound Studio) expands a tiny bit wider with Flux Gourmet, another one of the cult British director’s loopy-loo but sometimes moving, often droll, always visually sumptuous fantasias.

This one strikes a sillier, more satirical than usual note, sending up the manners and mores of the art world, represented here by an “institute devoted to culinary and alimentary performance” — in other words, shows where the artists amplify the sounds of food cooking, project the camera feed from a live colonoscopy, or smear themselves with comestibles, all experiences more sonic than gastronomic as far as their audiences are concerned. After the show, there are orgies.

Flux Gourmet

The Bottom Line

Gaseous but good.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Encounters)
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou, Richard Bremmer, Leo Bill
Director/screenwriter: Peter Strickland

1 hours 49 minutes

The institute’s couture-clad director Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie, her costumes designed by Giles Deacon with millinery by Stephen Jones) clashes with Elle di Elle (Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed), the de facto leader of a collective to whom Stevens has awarded a coveted residency. Meanwhile, tensions between Elle and the collective’s other two members, played by Asa Butterfield (Sex Education, Hugo) and Ariane Labed (both parts of The Souvenir, Alps), threaten to implode the residency’s fragile peace.

It’s not hard to see in the whole set-up a palimpsest of arts patronage here on earth, not only in the more rarefied realm of galleries and academia, but also in the gritty pit of film funding, with Christie’s imperious benefactor standing in for creative producers in the movie biz. (It’s perhaps worth noting that neither the BBC nor the BFI, who backed Strickland’s last, In Fabric, are listed in the credits this time around.)

Moreover, the talk of “dietary differences” that threaten the harmony of the collective — who still don’t have a name because they can’t agree on one, and the only ideas lead-singer-like Elle can come up with are variations on the construction “Elle and the…” — has obvious parallels in the music scene. Given that Strickland’s own erstwhile beat combo The Sonic Catering Band contributes music to the score here, he probably has some idea about what backstage bickering among band members can be like, while he also cites This Is Spinal Tap in the press notes as an influence, along with Robert Bresson’s use of voiceover, The Viennese Actionists and mime artist Marcel Marceau.

The above might suggest that the skewering of pretension and power-jockeying is the main ingredient of Flux‘s feast, but that satirical quality doesn’t entirely dominate. The voiceover in Greek spoken by Stones (Makis Papadimitriou, Suntan), the institute’s “dossierge” (sort of like an embedded journalist), is suffused with pain, shame and embarrassment — and not the funny kind. Suffering from severe gastric discomfort that results in constant nightly flatulence (alluded to but thankfully not heard), Stones endures anxiety as he tries to hide his tummy trouble (not surprising given how revolting the Eastern Bloc buffets of jellied foodstuffs on display look). His condition is treated with empathy — especially since he’s one of the very few characters here that might be described, if this were in any way a “normal” film, as likable.

Fans of Strickland’s work don’t come to his films expecting likable characters, although some of them earn a kind of empathy from the audience (see, for example, Toby Jones’ terrified sound engineer in Berberian or Sidse Babett Knudsen’s long-suffering dominatrix in Duke). But kinky, horny, grotesque, obsessive, meticulous, cruel — those are all good to go.

And no one exemplifies that better here than the two lead antagonists, Mohamed’s Elle and Christie’s Jan. Often naked and slathered in thick fake gore on stage or dressed in Victorian gowns and putting on an equally performative display of diva-grade peevishness off stage, Mohamed has a carnal magnetism throughout. Christie, on the other hand, nails the icy froideur of a top-tier arts administrator, all murderous self-interest under a thin veneer of jocularity and red satin. Her dialogue isn’t quite as funny as her turn in In Fabric, but even the way she answers every phone call with a sing-songy recitation of her own name is somehow, in the hands of Christie’s fine comic timing, utterly hilarious.

As the put-upon band members Billy Rubin and Lamina Propria, Butterfield and Labed, respectively, have less to do. His hair piled up and pushed forward in an 80s quiff and rocking the double denim look, Butterfield gets to play surlier than his usual shy outsiders as Billy lazily offers himself up as an object of lust for the most rapacious women in the film. Elegant as usual, Labed brings a tiny tinge of tragedy to her bitter Lamina, a character who’s kind of like one of those overlooked but highly competent bassists in a band, keeping the rhythm section tight but with little reward for her efforts and no share of the publishing revenue. The ensemble is rounded out with sturdy turns from returning players Richard Bremmer as an evil-ish doctor and Leo Bill as the delightfully named Technical Assistant Wim, complete with mullet.

Perhaps it’s a sign that this is one of Strickland’s weaker works when you’re reduced to finding amusement in the wigs. It should be noted that sometimes this feels like just weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Nevertheless, Strickland builds his own worlds with such a distinctive style — down to the fonts, the bilious shades of green and the textures of the silks — that the viewer can’t help feeling pulled into his crazy maelstrom of quirk.

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Encounters)
Distributor: IFC
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou, Richard Bremmer, Leo Bill
Production companies: Bankside Films, IFC Productions, Blue Bear Film & TV, Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Lunapark Pictures, Red Breast Production
Director/screenwriter: Peter Strickland
Producers: Serena Armitage, Pietro Greppi
Executive producers: Stephen Kelliher, Sophie Green, Arianna Bocco, Betsy Rodgers, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Ian Benson
Director of photography: Tim Sidell
Production designer: Fletcher Jarvis
Costume designer: Saffron Cullane, Giles Deacon
Editor: Matyas Fekete
Sound designer: Tim Harrison
Music: Jeremy Barnes, Heather Trost, Roj, Cavern of Anti-Matter, Dan Hayhurst, The Sonic Catering Band
Music supervisor: Phil Canning
Casting: Shaheen Baig

1 hours 49 minutes