The adage “write what you know” works well for writer-director Peter Strickland with his Berlin Film Festival Encounters feature Flux Gourmet. The former member of The Sonic Catering Band makes rich work of a fictional culinary performance collective, while also tackling taboos in the depiction of stomach problems on screen.
The latter may sound comical, and often is, but there’s also a serious note to Strickland’s flatulent hero, Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), who recounts his suffering in a solemn voiceover as he describes working as a ‘dossierge.’ His job is to interview and document the artist collective in residence at an institute run by an indomitable Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). But Stones finds himself increasingly drawn into their world and their politics, while silently suffering from bowel issues that keep him awake at night.
Desperate to avoid embarrassment, Stones details the measures he takes for his condition to remain undetected, though these may be in vain. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a man struggling with a common ailment that is usually used on-screen for laughs. Our cinematic instincts have us expecting a fart joke — but will it ever come?
Meanwhile, we’re sharing Stones’ tension as he waits for a diagnosis from the unsympathetic resident doctor, Glock (Richard Bremner), who’s rarely seen without a supercilious smile and a glass of wine.
And what of the culinary collective? That’s where the true humor lies. Fatma Mohamed is a riot as Elle di Elle, the self-appointed leader who experiments with food on stage while inviting orgiastic responses from her audiences after the show. Her back up band/sound artists are her stepson Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) who’s all denim, Flock of Seagulls haircut and Freudian fetishes; and Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), arguably the most sane among them, who’s long past falling under Elle’s spell.
Looming over them in outrageously theatrical designer garb is Jan Stevens, the benefactor who insists on picking a fight over a flanger, an instrument that becomes a hilarious symbol of the power struggle between her and Elle, who is known to mutter the name “Jan Stevens” ominously in her sleep. There’s an echo of the TV comedy Toast Of London, though this is slightly more restrained in its lampooning of the absurdities of performance art. Its affectionate amusement at the scene is perhaps closer to the episode ‘Art’ in Edgar Wright’s TV series Spaced, featuring David Walliams as an artist known as Vulva.
But parallels with Strickland’s previous work are the most abundant. While this ties into the sonic obsession of Berberian Sound Studio and the visual preoccupations of In Fabric, it feels particularly close to The Duke Of Burgundy as it explores the complex sexual and power dynamics within a small group. Like that film, it refuses to color its characters in black or white. For example, while Elle is domineering, she is a women’s rights activist and kind to Stones. Her contradictions and complexities make her fascinating as well as funny.
Strickland has delivered another delicious character-driven drama that balances the amusingly surreal with the uncomfortably real — and it’s a wild and witty ride.
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