❉ There’s something genuinely physical, even tactile, about Peter Strickland’s work, and that pseudo-fetishistic aesthetic is present and correct here, writes Andy Murray.
There’s no getting away from it. The films of writer/director Peter Strickland, such as In Fabric, Berberian Sound Studio and Duke of Burgundy, don’t cater for all tastes. They’re curious, intense, often darkly funny pieces that operate a world away from bog-standard British cinema.
Strickland’s latest, Flux Gourmet depicts an experimental art installation residency, by a group too dysfunctional to agree on a name, under the patronage of of the husky, arch Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), while being documented by troubled writer Stones (Makis Papadimitriou). The group specialises in ‘sonic catering’ – that is, using food to generate noise – as indeed did Strickland’s erstwhile real-life performance outfit. The Sonic Catering Band. There’s probably a generous dollop of COUM/Throbbing Gristle’s exploits in the mix here too, both for Strickland’s ex-band and the film itself. As the residency goes on, tensions grow in pretty much every direction. Ultimately, of course, the performances are only part of it.
Over the course of four previous films, Strickland has developed his own company of actors – understandably, as not everyone would ‘get’ his particular approach, so he’d want to keep hold of those who do. Several faces in the cast here will be familiar to long-time admirers, from regular muse Fatma Mohamed, as the group’s uncompromising leader Elle di Elle, to Richard Bremmer as the leering, overbearing Dr Glock. Leo Bill, a talented TV star who made a big impression in In Fabric, gets a turn here as a character who doesn’t say a single word.
In Fabric felt like a watershed for Strickland, the moment when his own deep peculiarities meshed with slightly wider appeal. Flux Gourmet has more meat on its bones in terms of character development and a developing narrative, but all told it doesn’t gel quite as satisfyingly. Nevertheless, it’s a fine piece of work. As you’d expect from Strickland, it looks eye-popping, and the sound design is extraordinary (all the more so if the volume’s given a kick upwards). Since Berberian Sound Studio it’s been clear that Strickland’s an audio buff, but increasingly it’s evident that he’s fascinated by senses beyond sight and sound. There’s something genuinely physical, even tactile, about his work, and that pseudo-fetishistic aesthetic is present and correct here.
If it took itself seriously this might be insufferable, but Strickland has a nifty line in deadpan humour, not stopping short of a running joke about a flanger. The cast, notably Asa Butterfield as junior group member Billy Rubin, know how to walk that fine line, and the result is often very funny. Occasionally Flux Gourmet is a little too chatty and unengaging, and as close to flat as Strickland could possibly get, but these moments are the exception rather than the rule.
For this preview screening at HOME in Manchester, Strickland himself is present, preceding the main feature with his outré recent short film Blank Narcisuss (inspired by watching the director’s commentaries on DVDs of ‘70s gay art-porn, natch). After the feature, he’s in Q&A with Prof. Andy Willis, explaining his profound love of smells and how Pasolini influenced Flux Gourmet, rather than the exploitation cinema that influenced his previous work (mind you, there is a neat nod to Danger: Diabolik if you care to look).
Honestly, though, in person Strickland comes across as a little distracted. Perhaps not unconnectedly, he talks of an intention to move away from filmmaking, at least for the time being, and work instead as a writer for hire. Asked to explain why, he admits that raising finances for his projects is very hard and isn’t about to get any easier. It’s tempting to read this as a major preoccupation – after all, in many ways Flux Gourrnet itself is all about operating as an artist, finding the financial backing to do so and the creative compromises that can be involved. Either way, if the likes of Strickland can’t manage to operate within the contemporary film industry and follow their vision, it’d be a crying shame and we’d all be the poorer.
Arguably it doesn’t conjure a whole wonderful and frightening world as deftly as In Fabric did, then, but Flux Gourmet remains an oddly delightful offering from a filmmaker who is the very definition of the word ‘idiosyncratic’. Long may he continue, fingers crossed.
❉ A Peter Strickland Film, ‘Flux Gourmet’ is coming to cinemas in the UK on 30 September 2022 and the upcoming Blu-ray, DVD and VOD release date is to be confirmed. Approx. running minutes 111m. BBFC Classification: 15. Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou, Richard Bremmer, Leo Bill.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.