Director: Peter Strickland
Talent: Gwendoline Christie, Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, Asa Butterfield
Release Date: September 30
A collective of experimental performance artists take up a residency at an institution presided over by a meddlesome director, Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). The group specialise in a process known as “sonic catering”, whereby they draw out and manipulate sounds from food before the public. A journalist called Stones has been hired to document everything, and interviews the players, but the fact he is plagued by perpetual flatulence causes him distress. He shares a mixed dorm with the artists and keeps excusing himself so that he can break wind out of earshot. Little does Stones know he will soon be included in the collective’s performances. When one of the performers, Billy, confesses to having an egg fetish, the extravagantly attired Jan Stevens takes a shine to him and they begin a sexual relationship. Or maybe Jan is using him to interfere in the collective’s artistic process, as their de facto leader, Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), is so uncompromising in her process that she won’t take the slightest suggestion on board. Many battles for supremacy ensue. Meanwhile, a rival artistic collective start attacking the premises, jealous that they weren’t given the residency.
While the point of this satirical freakout of a film is to lampoon the deadpan affectations of the art world, Strickland’s film is itself a somewhat inscrutable, albeit often hilarious, art object. It’s so singular it borders on an alienating obtuseness. But like the best art, much of it is so out of left field that you are ignited with the sense that anything could happen here. At the very least, Strickland succeeds in making something that could never have existed without him.
Sill, he clearly has his forebears. Peter Greenaway’s masterful The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover springs irresistibly to mind. Like Greenaway, Strickland has a visionary flair for creating his own cinematic rules. More recent films are also brought to mind like Cronenberg’s surprisingly funny Crimes Of The Future and Östlund’s The Square. Flux Gourmet similarly revels in the gleeful absurdism of the performance art world.
However, by the time you get to the tricksy end of this horror-tinged film, you might grow weary of its archness. Ultimately, you can’t help but wonder if one or two of the narrative threads were played more straight, would this disarming work make even more of an impression? The horror inflections add a bit of ghoulish spice without developing into something more discomfiting like Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Stickland’s tongue is always firmly in his cheek. Enjoyable though this film is, it’s something of a trifle.
Nevertheless, there are many unforgettable sequences, like when a naked Elle di Elle covered in vicious red fluid writhes on the ground before the audience, pretending to be a pig being slaughtered as her collaborators make foreboding droning sounds.
The droll, bone-dry dialogue is also an absolute hoot. When Jan Stevens asks the collective to lower the volume on “the flanger pedal”, Elle refuses even though she doesn’t know what a flanger is. Such is her unwavering commitment to artistic integrity. Jan Stevens retorts: “to dismiss every opinion of mine out of hand when I have chosen to fund you and promote you above dozens of others reeks of entitlement rather than your perceived notion of integrity.”
Though Strickland’s film may sometimes prove elusive, it’s edifying to behold a work so unflagging in its resolve to do its own thing. Sometimes, artists have to be unmoored from interference to create something new at all.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Matthew Kelly