Every so often, a movie comes along that sends culinarily inclined audiences into rapture — “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night” or “Like Water for Chocolate” spring to mind — getting eyes glistening and mouths watering in anticipation of a meal that only the characters will ever taste. “Flux Gourmet” is not that foodie movie. In fact, “Flux Gourmet” may well send audiences running for the loo, or else reaching for the barf bag, coming about as close to triggering the gag reflex as a film can without actually jamming a finger down your throat.
It’s doubtful that was quite the intention of writer-director Peter Strickland, the content-with-cult-status auteur behind “Berberian Sound Studio” and “In Fabric.” And yet, somewhere around the scene where alimentary performance artist Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamad) unscrews a stool sample cup and smears the dark chocolaty goo all over her face, audiences will be making like the sickly green Nauseated Face emoji, if not the green-spewing Open Mouth Vomiting emoji.
To call “Flux Gourmet” an acquired taste would be an understatement. It’s really more of an elaborate inside joke by Strickland on the peculiar relationship between artists and the institutions that fund, develop and encourage their folly. Working from mouth to stomach to bowel, the film takes place over the course of a three-week residency at the Sonic Catering Institute, a highly specialized creative space — not dissimilar in feel from the lonelyhearts club in “The Lobster” — where experimental musicians are encouraged to, well, play with their food.
Despite a fondness for Strickland’s earlier cinematic projects (especially lesbian lepidopterist oddity “Duke of Burgundy”), I somehow missed the not-inconsequential biographical detail that after directing several short films back in the ’90s, he took “a long hiatus making culinary soundscapes with The Sonic Catering Band” (per the press notes). Which means that Elle di Elle (whose name is a “bad cholesterol” pun, but who hasn’t gotten around to christening her musical trio) is both inspired by and a satire of his own work in this highly specialized field.
Now, I will readily admit that I have the least sophisticated musical taste of anyone I know, and yet, I’m willing to sample almost anything. Bored by pop music, I’ve recently found my curiosity straying down strange noise-experiment corridors: musique concrète doodles by Pierre Henry, weird Czech film scores (like “Morgiana” and “Daisies”) and — my personal favorite — Jean-Claude Vanier’s trippy prog-rock concept album “L’Enfant Assassin des Mouches,” which could be the funky score to the greatest film never made. This is all to say, I’m open to discovering what a sonic collective can do with simmering pans and boiling pots (the movie has an undeniably unique score, pairing Strickland’s past recordings with contributions from Stereolab co-founder Tim Gane and folk duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw). But even my appetite for the unusual has its limits, and I can’t say that I’m all that interested in hearing what a colonoscopy sounds like.
Strickland, on the other hand, thinks it’s a hoot. Elle’s performances are attended by a small group of intellectual elitists, who politely endure her confrontational shenanigans, only to convene backstage for orgiastic “audience tributes” after the show. That’s a pretty damning critique, which must be in some way inspired by Strickland’s own experience with such institutions, where wealthy patrons get to fraternize with the artists. Here, the stentorian overseer, Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Stevens), is free to strike up an affair with her favorite artist in residence (Asa Butterfield’s Billy Rubin), while third wheel Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed) worries about how much flanging their cuisine-art requires.
“Flux Gourmet” is told from the point of view of a hack writer, Stones (Makis Papdimitriou), who’s suffering from an undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition that leaves him silently burping and farting in the background of most scenes. Stones works for the institute as its “dossierge,” recording all that transpires during a residency, which gives Strickland license to interview the characters one at a time — similar to but not quite mockumentary style — and to baste this entire turkey in a gratuitous Greek-language voiceover.
Strickland makes weird movies, but I can’t help thinking that this entire project is a deliberate sendup of how absurd international art-house cinema has become — none of it stranger than the Greek Weird Wave. Adopting a kind of faux pretentiousness of its own, “Flux Gourmet” plays like early Woody Allen, minus the punchlines (a less funny “Love and Death,” say). As the residency unfolds, Stevens receives threatening phone calls from the Mangrove Snacks, a rival collective that is sore about being rejected by the institute.
Meanwhile, Elle gets increasingly more tyrannical — and transgressive — with each successive performance, which drives her shock-art culinary statements to ever-greater extremes. Just how committed is she? It’s kind of a moot point, since Strickland’s highly self-conscious style adds a distracting level of artifice to everything, so audiences never imagine that what they’re watching is anything other than staged for their benefit. We’re a long way from the filthy authenticity of John Waters ordering Divine to eat excrement in “Pink Flamingos” — a stunt that hardly needs repeating, even if plenty of other disgusting surprises are on the “Flux Gourmet” menu.