Friday, 23 September 2022

Flux Gourmet (2022) - Movie Review

Just in case it wasn’t weird enough that The Invitation and After Ever Happy, two films that fall under the same niche category of ‘hilariously awful fanfiction as cinema’, are both in cinemas at the same time as I’m writing this, we now have a film that fits into another niche that would’ve been weird enough to have one feature representing it in theatres. Much like Crimes Of The Future, the latest from Peter Strickland (who also did the excellent Duke Of Burgundy some years back) is heavily fixated on performance art culture and the politics surrounding it, refracted through the director’s unique sensibilities. However, where Cronenberg used it as a vehicle for his usual musings on the limits of the human body, what Strickland has in mind here is far less heady than that. It is downright silly, in fact.

That silliness presents itself right from the main setting: The Sonic Catering Institute. It is a school for artists who specialise in using food to make music. For example, if you filled a blender with all manner of fruits and vegetables, wired it up to a variety of synthesisers and effects pedals, and then blared out the result while someone is writhing on the floor covered in jam, that would be just a typical performance from one of these groups. Groups like the one that has begun a residency gig at the Institute, consisting of Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed), and Billy (Asa Butterfield), and who are being interviewed and documented by journalist and self-described hack writer Stones (Makis Papadimitriou).

It's the kind of experimental ‘let’s just make shit up and slap a genre label on it containing at least 9 hyphens’ pretentiousness that reads like parody of out-there musical sub-genres, which for a film that acts as art satire certainly fits. But as someone who’s been getting more into noise music over the last few years, and taken a liking to clipping., Merzbow, Deathpile, the Butthole Surfers, and the ‘make music using whatever random junk we have lying around’ ethos of Matmos, I legitimately love how this film sounds. The sound design on this film is insane, taking the Pavlovian effect of food cooking and turning it into a euphoric wall of noise. Bonus points for the sequences of the group ‘shopping’, which are extended mime routines set to sound effects; Strickland is still tipping his hat to foley artists as actual artists, like he did back with Berberian Sound Studio.

As for the actual art satire, it feels similar to A Mighty Wind in how it highlights the intra-group tensions and conflicts within a niche musical genre. It’s also on a similar rib-tickling wavelength as, whether the group are debating what they should call themselves, discussing the… perplexing reasons why they became sonic caterers in the first place, or arguing about whether or not a flanger should be used in the performance (in a running gag that rivals Tripledent Gum), it’s consistently giggle-worthy. I mean, when it gets to the point where a character is… well, there’s no way to put it other than ‘hypnotised by vaginal juices’, it’s more than clear that the film isn’t taking itself entirely seriously.

Not only that, but it also goes the way of The Burnt Orange Heresy and actively takes the piss out of people who meet this kind of egotistical claptrap at its own level. One of the funnier cast members here is Richard Bremmer as gastroenterologist Dr Glock, who spends most of his time on-screen quoting ancient Greek writers and then turning his nose up at people who don’t recognise the quotes. There’s also Stones’ role as narrator, where he spends a lot of time waxing lyrical about trying to hold in his farts around other people. It’s quite amusing, but considering my line of work, it also feels like I’m being read to filth.

And yet, while it maintains that unabashedly silly energy throughout, a lot of what it has to say concerning the bizarre art form at its core still makes rational sense. Alongside all the poking and prodding at artistic pretentiousness and ego, it also delves into The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover territory in its exploration of our relationship with food. Some of it is political, like when Elle discusses the expectations of who in a relationship is ‘supposed’ to do the cooking every night, while some of it is more practical, like how a person’s dietary requirements (Vegan, gluten-intolerant, etc.) can affect their standing in social situations. It even bleeds into the use of props, given how only one character is shown actually eating food on-screen, while the people who are most argumentative about matters of taste are also the ones shown smoking in every scene.

There’s a lot of British absurdist irony coating even the more contemplative moments in this film, but while Strickland has no qualms of making fun of these kinds of artists, he also lets them maintain their dignity by acknowledging that the message behind that art still rings true. Appreciating art while still being able to laugh at its quirks is a notion that can sometimes get lost in the larger conversation, and as someone who started out as just another Angry Critic on YouTube, I admit that I didn’t always get that. So it’s good to see it get some breathing room in a film like this.

It’s the kind of honest examination tinged with well-meaning giggles that went into Strickland’s perspective on BDSM in Duke Of Burgundy, to the point where aspects of that same judgement-free fetishism shows up here as well (performances regularly end with orgies involving the artists and the audience). And the effect it all left me with is just as oddball as the feature itself. On one hand, I had a lot of fun with its deadpan humour and its highlighting of highfalutin artistic sensibilities as being… well, goofy as fuck. But on the other hand, because of its ruminations on how something as simple as food can say a lot about us, and my weakness for experimental noisy soundscapes, there’s a lot about this I like beyond the irony.


Addendum: So I didn’t know about this when I saw the film, or did my initial write-up, but it seems there’s an element of autobiography to this story. The Institute is based on a real-life musical collective Peter Strickland is part of called The Sonic Catering Band, and their work is much like what is featured throughout this film. If you’re like me and are intrigued by this film’s soundscapes, or just interested in odd noise music pieces, their complete discography along with accompanying recipes can be found here.

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