There are times when Peter Strickland feels like a filmmaker teleported from another era. The British director’s frame of reference centres on hardcore European arthouse and exploitation films from a time before blockbusters, multiplexes, and streaming.
His psychological tale Berberian Sound Studio (2012) dealt with an English sound engineer, working in 1970s Rome in the world of Italian Giallo horror. He followed that with 2014’s BDSM-tinged The Duke of Burgundy, an austere tribute to Seventies sexploitation.
Trying to pinpoint the references in his latest work, Flux Gourmet, is a parlour game all by itself. Films ranging from Georges Franju’s Judex (1963) to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss (1982) all crop up in conversation. Then again, Strickland’s not above dropping in nods to reality TV shows like The X Factor (“I love these things,” he cries) or even Grange Hill, a school-set show for youngsters that was a staple of British TV schedules in the Eighties.
Flux Gourmet is arguably one of the weirdest and most controversial movies of 2022, with a story of body horror liable to make even David Cronenberg blush. “I mean, anyone can shock – it’s the easiest thing in the world,” says Strickland, when we meet in Berlin. “I’m interested in the hypocrisies around shock value. The wrong things often seem shocking – and the things that you should be shocked by are not seen as shocking. And it’s led right into this.”
Set in a rambling English house, the story revolves around the exploits of an artistic collective hosted by an eccentric patron, named Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). This rarefied group (including Asa Butterfield and Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed) make art from recording sounds in the kitchen, as food cooks, bubbles, and hisses. As strange as it sounds, it came inspired by Strickland’s own background, when he was a part of The Sonic Catering Band back in 1996, making sweet music from edibles.
“We toured in Europe. We played in a couple of galleries here and there. We even used some of the stuff from ’96 [that we recorded] in this film. It was interesting. When we started, we just used secondhand analogue gear, which was very cheap back then. Then eventually, we got our first computer in the late nineties and got Cubase. And then in the early 2000s, we had a very digital sound. Now I look back, I much prefer the stuff from the nineties which is much rougher. But we’ve never been in residence. That’s never happened!”
As the group comes to blows over various issues, the shock element comes when Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) arrives to document their activities. Strickland was inspired by the camerapersons that usually come on film sets to record EPKs – Electronic Press Kits – capturing behind-the-scenes ‘B-roll’ footage for publicity purposes. “It’s their job to be invisible. So, he’s that guy, the invisible guy. He’s just supposed to be documenting everything. You’re always interested in those background people; they must have a life as well.”
While Stones must ingratiate himself with this collective, he is also suffering from a severe intestinal problem, acutely embarrassing given that he’s sharing mixed dorm sleeping quarters with the others. Gradually, the group exploits his medical issues for a stomach-churning bout of live performance art. “I wondered, ‘How would you do this without being a bit of a frat boy? How do you explore it in a serious way? But also, how do you avoid being too earnest?” ponders Strickland. “That middle ground is very difficult to find. I guess I wanted to make an alternative and look at it more seriously.”
Strickland speaks of the “frustration” with how food intolerances are dealt with in cinema – usually for comic purposes, despite millions suffering from real-life complaints. “When we were hiring for the crew, one person told me ‘I’ve got irritable bowel syndrome.’ It’s not the same as this but…you just can’t talk about it. You just get laughed at.” He cites Peter Rabbit, the live action/animation film from 2018, in which the mischievous bunny attacks Sam Neill’s farmer with blackberries, causing an allergic reaction.
At the time, it caused an uproar, with Sony forced to apologise for a film that inadvertently made allergy sufferers the butt of a joke. “I got into an argument with someone online about it. I don’t really go online much, but I got so angry. This woman said, ‘My kids watch Tom and Jerry, and they know if you hit someone over the head…they know the difference between right and wrong, basically.’ But you don’t know with food. Because everyone knows a rock over the head is going to hurt. No one knows an allergen, like a sesame seed or a nut, is going to provoke that, because there’s no education around it.”
With Flux Gourmet (a nod to acid reflux) recalling films like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, it’s enough to put you off your dinner, especially when Stones encounters arguably the worst doctor (Richard Bremmer) in the history of cinema. From unhygienic practices to stretching out the revelation of Stones’ condition to an agonising degree, “he’s your worst nightmare,” says Strickland. “He’s an absolute sadist. He’s a total quack. Thank god I never encountered a doctor like him.”
Medical issues didn’t stop there, with the film being shot amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Four false starts almost derailed the film, along with Strickland’s own house – that he rents – suddenly being put up for sale by the landlord shortly before he was due to start shooting. “I called everyone [for help] …I even called some of the actors from the film. Eventually, I knew some divorce lawyers who had a great year because of the pandemic, and they bought the house off my landlord. And we could stay put. So that was very, very, very stressful.”
Despite a micro-budget 14-day shoot – three days less than his 2009 debut Katalin Varga – visually, the film looks splendid. Especially the costumes worn by Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, who reteams here with Leo Bill, her co-star from Strickland’s last film, In Fabric. “She had huge input, huge input,” says Strickland, who let his actress and English fashion designer Giles Deacon go to town on some of the flamboyant outfits. “I just spoke roughly about films like Veronika Voss or Daughters of Darkness [the 1971 erotic vampire horror by Harry Kümel], this kind of decadent reference.”
Thinking of Christie’s character, he adds, “I guess what was interesting for me was…she had a name, which is a very ordinary name: Jan Stevens.” It’s a name that gets repeated in full throughout the movie. “I got that from Judex, the Franju film. Nobody says the [full] name of the character anymore. The last time I heard it was Grange Hill when they say ‘Gripper Stebson!’ [the school bully]. This is where I like melodrama. There’s a flavour to it. I know it’s silly…but every time Judex appears, they say ‘Judex’. I just missed that from cinema; it’s not something you’re supposed to do. It seems a bit amateurish, which I like.”
One of Strickland’s biggest references is Pasolini’s highly controversial Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the fascist allegory that sees a group of youngsters subjected to physical, mental, and sexual torture. The film’s most notorious scene sees the victims forced to eat human excrement, a sequence dubbed ‘The Circle of Shit’. “I remember when you see that caption you think, ‘Oh my god, where is this gonna go?’ Your heart is pumping, the fear is flowing, because it’s so calm. So we did that with this film. We have the third chapter…it’s the bowels and you see your character preparing the colonoscopy tube with the vaseline. And it’s very calm, but you know it’s gonna end in tears.” Ouch.
Flux Gourmet is in cinemas September 8, 2022 and screens at the Darwin International Film Festival on September 16, 2022