movie review

Savoring Flux Gourmet’s Satire of Celebrity Performance Art

Photo: IFC Films

Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) spends Flux Gourmet struggling with the relationship between creative authenticity and collaboration, the tension of documenting art versus participating in it, and how much he’s been farting lately. These themes often flow into each other seamlessly in his voice-over as if interconnected, which they essentially are. Peter Strickland’s fabulously deadpan film takes place during a residency for “culinary collectives” who create obscure soundscapes using food and kitchen equipment. Stones is at the Sonic Catering Institute to document the experiences of its latest guests, a trio whose inability to pick a name for their group is one of many sources of internal tension. While he’s quick to say he’s just a hack, there’s a journalist’s concern running through his struggles to be an invisible presence despite his gut insisting he be noticed. But there’s no place for objectivity in the artistic process or gastrointestinal distress, and Stones’s attempts at it erode as Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed), and Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield) grow concerned about his health and also interested in his potential to provide material for their work. What’s flatulence, anyway, if not the body’s attempt at its own form of sonic catering?

In one of those unplanned convergences of ideas and images that happen sometimes at the theater, Flux Gourmet is the second movie this month to take place in a universe in which performance artists are the equivalent of rock stars, admired and lusted after on the basis of their avant-garde productions. In Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg conjured up an emptied-out industrial future where Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux perform surgery on one another using Giger-esque medical devices in front of an awestruck audience. The work in Flux Gourmet is equally messy but sillier and more satisfying. Sizzling pans and uncovered blenders provide accompaniment for soundboard shrieks, and headphone jacks are placed directly into bowls of soup. Elle, the group’s leader and diva, appears nude and covered in red liquid in a statement about animal slaughter. She’s sensitive about appearing to have been selected for the residency based on her vegetarianism, especially when another collective that wasn’t chosen — the Mangrove Snacks — start resentfully prank-calling the institute and bombarding it with attacks that always involve turtles. Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie), the head of the institute, is dismissive about that, sniffing, “They can’t even do transgression very well.”

Celebrity performance artists make for a useful stand-in for directors because of the contradiction they embody. To make art films is to make challenging work in a populist medium, but in the absurdist worlds that Cronenberg and Strickland have dreamed up, the challenging and the off-putting is what’s wildly popular. These movies satirize the art world — its language and pretensions, the way it’s in thrall to image and to the structures that support the industry — but they also represent a wistful sort of fantasy in which crowds gather, rapt, to take in the difficult or the grotesque. Then, in Strickland’s film, at least, the more devoted of the audience members troop backstage to pay their respects by participating in an apparently standard orgy. If Flux Gourmet is the more vibrant and certainly the funnier of the two features, it’s because of how it undercuts the high-minded ambitions of the characters with the indignities of the flesh. The emo-haired Billy, who has Oedipal leanings, ends up having a forbidden fling with Jan that involves a lot of nipple-fiddling. Lamina chafes against Elle’s ego and insistence that her more technically gifted bandmates are replaceable. And Elle — played by the magnetic Mohamed, who’s appeared in all of Strickland’s films, from 2009’s Katalin Varga to 2018’s haunted dress saga In Fabric, and feels like his chief conveyor of tone — is a self-mythologizing monster who lies about her background, makes constant power plays, and resists any attempt at notes or input. With her semi-ironic bouffant and her ability to couch the group’s work in terms of calculated polemics about gender roles and animal rights, she’s the star and knows it.

Strickland is, with all admiration, a singular talent and a total fucking weirdo whose films take place in warped realities that operate with their own internal logic. It’s that logic that makes Flux Gourmet his best work yet — the oddball but immediately graspable consistency of its strangeness, and the way it goes from formative erotic confessions to pretentious jargon and from a group mime exercise involving a supermarket to the pathos of Stones’s spending his nights holed up in the bathroom so his roommates won’t hear him passing gas. Flux Gourmet is visually lush with outlandish costuming and a habit of framing its characters so they always look like they’re performing, whether they’re in front of a crowd or not. But its most impressive trick is its underlying warmth, its understanding of the vulnerability and fallibility of its supposedly fearless artists and preening industry experts as well as of the downtrodden writer standing just on the outskirts, trying his best not to let anyone see how much discomfort he’s in.

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Savoring Flux Gourmet’s Satire of Celebrity Performance Art