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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Flux Gourmet"

At the Sonic Catering Institute, the equally grandiose and self-important worlds of art and food collide, and not always in the most delectable ways. In a Victorian mansion deep in the woods, experimental art collectives that combine high-end cuisine with experimental performance art gather to work on new material.

Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet traps us in this hermetically sealed environment of pretension, passion and perversity, and despite all the experimentation happening on the stage (and even in some of the bedrooms), his characters aren’t nearly as open-minded or collaborative as they think they are.

The head of the institute is a mysterious woman named Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), who gets her artists to unearth their long-buried trauma and personal hang-ups in bizarre sessions that exist somewhere between theater movement exercises and hypnotherapy. The institute’s current in-house collective is led by a woman named Elle (Fatma Mohamed), who refuses to have her ideas challenged. Her collaborators are Billy (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina (Ariane Labed), both of whom she has seduced and then trapped.

Their performances range from disgusting to merely curious: Microphones are trained on sizzling pans and whirring blenders, while Billy and Lamina crank volume knobs and adjust pitches and Elle rolls around naked in what looks like pureed tomatoes.

Meanwhile, a Greek journalist named Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) sits in the corner and placidly watches everything going on, including the orgies that seem to happen after every performance. He’s our narrator, exhaustively documenting the group’s artistic process, as well as his own intensifying gastrointestinal distress.

This is all presented with a straight face, which is a joke unto itself: Strickland treats the, uh, unorthodox methods of the Sonic Catering Institute so matter-of-factly that the whole film takes on the air of science fiction. I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future, with its artists performing amateur surgery to adoring crowds.

Strickland typically makes beautiful, opulent, incredibly strange movies about obsession, paranoia and violence, combining stiff-upper-lip British humor with the lush sensuality of French and Italian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s. He’s clearly a student of Luis Buñuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini, especially their later films that merged the sexual and the scatological, as well as the vicious comedies of his fellow countryman Peter Greenaway.

But Flux Gourmet is the first Strickland movie I’ve seen that didn’t hook me. It repurposes themes from his best works — specifically Berberian Sound Studio, about a film foley artist driven mad by the noise of violence, and The Duke of Burgundy, about the intricacies of a sadomasochistic lesbian romance — but this is, comparatively, a one-joke affair. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, that such an austere, beautifully mounted art film would dare to revel in stomach-churning provocations and puerile gags about bodily functions, though we get the gist real quick.

The most intriguing element of Flux Gourmet is that it’s about an artistic collaboration falling apart because its leader has lost the plot and is resorting to cheap shock tactics. Perhaps this is some kind of self-reflexive criticism on Strickland’s part, because here he has made a rich, indulgent five-course meal, and yet each course is merely a tired variation on the dish that preceded it.