I counted only one audible fart in “Flux Gourmet,” which seems a curious show of restraint for a movie in which sound and scatology play such important roles. A wondrously demented study in creative, sexual and gastrointestinal struggle, this latest art-horror-comedy whatsit from the Hungary-based English filmmaker Peter Strickland unfolds at the Sonic Catering Institute, a fortress of higher learning devoted to the “artistic pursuit of alimentary and culinary salvation.” That’s amusingly high-flown language for a bunch of performance artists who stick microphones in pots and pans, amplifying the sounds of bubbling stew, sizzling oil and whirring kitchen appliances (and sometimes smearing icky, sticky foodstuffs on their bodies).
But then, the union of high and low, of sensation and intellect, has always been central to Strickland’s own obsessions. For the better part of a decade, he has been an impishly inventive B-movie pasticheur, paying elaborate homage to long-neglected horror subgenres in “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) and “In Fabric” (2018), and investing the fleshy delights of old-school European erotica with a romantic soul in “The Duke of Burgundy” (2014). His connection to the artists in “Flux Gourmet” — or “feckless faux-provocateurs,” as one character describes them — feels especially personal. (Strickland himself played for many years with the Sonic Catering Band, whose food-based electronic music makes up much of the movie’s soundtrack.)
The trio of artists here, selected for a prestigious three-week residency at the institute, form a culinary collective whose deep internal dysfunction can be summed up by their inability to come up with a name. But their individual monikers are pretty clever, starting with their stubborn leader, Elle di Elle (get it?), who’s played by the sublimely commanding Fatma Mohamed, a Strickland regular. Elle squabbles a lot with her more genial bandmates, Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), punk-rock technicians who handle the microphones while their fearless leader writhes onstage in all her naked, sauce-smeared glory.
But Elle’s most vicious spats are with the institute’s domineering director, Jan Stevens (a supremely icy Gwendoline Christie), who, as the group’s wealthy patron, insists on maintaining a level of creative input. As their tensions escalate, “Flux Gourmet” becomes a wicked satire of feedback and pushback, of organizational tyranny and artistic defiance. Is Elle an uncompromising visionary or a contrarian brat? Is Jan Stevens (as she is always referred to) making a reasonable request or channeling her inner movie-studio philistine? As conceptual premises go, this one is as rich and meaty as beef Bourguignon, even if several of the characters are strict vegetarians. (But not vegans, to judge by Billy’s troubling egg fetish.)
There are others in the mix, including a disgruntled gang of culinary terrorists; various fans who line up backstage for hot-and-heavy groupie sex; and a sneering gastroenterologist played by Richard Bremmer, whom you may remember as the masturbating warlock from “In Fabric.” (If not, you must not have seen “In Fabric.”) Meanwhile, as their residency progresses, Elle, Billy and Lamina are photographed and interviewed by the institute’s in-house diarist, Stones (a soulful, sad-eyed Makis Papadimitriou), who also serves as the movie’s narrator. Stones is a sympathetic guide; he also has a severe case of bowel inflammation that makes it increasingly difficult for him to fulfill his professional duties. Stifling flatulence is a full-time job, and one that he does very well.
It’s telling that, even as Strickland is staging something as out-there as a public colonoscopy, he refuses to milk Stones’ condition for easy ridicule. (He isn’t interested in farts for farts’ sake.) Instead he encourages our empathy with one man’s intense embarrassment and anxiety — all-too-relatable feelings that Stones attempts to exorcise, at one point, by laying his own body and its excretions on the altar of art. Like David Cronenberg’s recent “Crimes of the Future,” in which major surgery becomes a public spectacle, “Flux Gourmet” engages performance art through an intensely corporeal prism. And not unlike Cronenberg — though in a cheerier, less apocalyptic key — Strickland may want to gross you out a little, but he also wants you to think about, and even marvel at, the imaginative rigor and density of the world he’s created.
To put it another way: As much comedy as Strickland mines from Elle and her bandmates’ self-seriousness, he also takes them completely seriously. (He also clearly adores his actors; while Christie and Mohamed get the biggest laughs, Papadimitriou, Butterfield and especially Labed tease out deep reserves of melancholy from characters who might’ve been subjected to one-note parody.) Watching these artists workshop a grocery-store pantomime — or perform debased foodie stunts straight out of “Top Chef: Salò” — you might find your initial laughter giving way to fascination, even appreciation. If this is satire, it’s satire so generously attentive toward its targets that mockery and love become virtually indistinguishable.
Much of this speaks to the skill and commitment of Strickland’s collaborators, especially production designer Fletcher Jarvis and costume designers Saffron Cullane and Emily Newby, who are all on the director’s beautifully grotesque wavelength. A fetishist par excellence, Strickland likes to dwell on surfaces and textures, and in “Flux Gourmet” he offers up an aural and visual feast in which food itself is relentlessly scrutinized and even defamiliarized. In one scene, he shoots an enormous bread spread in such disorienting close-up that the rolls and pastries come to resemble alien organs; in another, he considers the illusory properties of a certain dessert. It’s all in terrible taste. It’s also delicious.
(In English and Greek with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Starts June 24 on demand and at the Frida Cinema, Santa Ana; Laemmle Glendale