David Cronenberg isn’t the only auteur fetishist who’s recently revisited his early work to construct a new fantasy world overrun by grotesque performance art. I didn’t have time to catch Crimes of the Future opening weekend because I spent those four days submerged in the lower-budget, lower-profile offerings of The Overlook Film Festival at Canal Place. From the vantage point of that Overlook microcosm, the premise & circumstances of Peter Strickland’s Flux Gourmet appeared eerily in sync with what I’d been reading about the new Cronenberg. Strickland obviously doesn’t have as deep nor as prestigious of a catalog as Cronenberg’s (yet!), but there’s still a clear, circular career arc to his latest bedchamber dispatch. Flux Gourmet feels like Strickland revising the giallo-tinged Berberian Sound Studio to bring it up to speed with the more free-flowing, one-of-a-kind absurdism he’s achieved in the decade since. The result is not quite as silly as In Fabric nor as sensual as The Duke of Burgundy, but it hits a nice sweet spot in-between, just as Crimes of the Future reportedly lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and his late-career philosophic cold showers.
Strickland’s preposterous performance art fantasy world is enclosed in an artists’ colony that patronizes “culinary collectives” & “sonic caterers.” Its current artists in residence are an avant-garde noise band that mic & distort routine, mundane cooking processes for a rapturous audience of pretentious art snobs. Their work recontextualizes the sounds of food prep as both a difficult-listening version of music and as a low-key form of witchcraft, recalling the fuzzy borders between foley work, madness, and divine transcendence in Berberian Sound Studio. Despite their inscrutability as artists, they suffer every dipshit rockstar cliché you’d expect from broader, more accessible comedies like Airheads, This is Spinal Tap, and That Thing You Do. The film essentially gives the witchy performance art collective of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria the VH1 Behind the Music treatment, with petty squabbles over what to name the band, how much creative input the frontwoman allows the rest of the “collective,” and what they’re going to eat on tour overpowering the more supernatural goings on at the art institute.
If Strickland’s kinky, insular phantasmagoria has anything to say about the real world outside its walls, it’s in the way it satirizes the creative process of all commercial art, no matter how fringe or intellectual. Every character at the culinary art colony has a direct equivalent in the production of music, movies, and fine art. Gwendoline Christie funds the collective’s work, limiting their creative freedom with producer meddling & studio boardroom notes just to flex her authority. Longtime Strickland muse Fatma Mohamed plays the hothead bandleader, enraged by every one of her collaborators’ minor creative suggestions, especially Christie’s. The list goes on from there: Asa Butterfield as a go-with-the-flow bandmate who tiptoes around his hot-tempered bosses; In Fabric’s Richard Bremmer as an insufferable academic who intellectualizes everything the band accomplishes without contributing anything to the project; a faceless audience who shows their appreciation for the band’s performances in writhing backstage orgies; etc. My personal favorite is, of course, Makis Papadimitriou as a quietly suffering journalist who attempts to remain objective & separate from the work but gets sucked into the absurd drama of the band’s creative process anyway. Not only is Strickland more appreciative of the journalist’s significance in the artistic ecosystem than most art-world satires normally are, but he also uses the writer as a constant fart-joke delivery system in a way that tempers the film’s potential for pretension.
I don’t know that Flux Gourmet’s art-world parody has as much to say about the creative process as The Duke of Burgundy has to say about romantic power dynamics or In Fabric has to say about fetishistic obsession. I’m also at the point with Strickland that I don’t need him to prove his greatness with profound statements or unique observations about the world outside his head. The nail-salon talons & over-the-top Euro fashions of his visual aesthetic remain a constant delight, as does his naughty schoolboy sense of humor. I wouldn’t recommend Flux Gourmet as Baby’s First Strickland, just as I imagine Crimes of the Future wouldn’t be as valuable of a Cronenberg gateway as bona fide classics like Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash, and eXistenZ. I guess if there’s any way Strickland has the one-up in that comparison, it’s that there’s a lot less homework you’d have to catch up with to understand his whole deal, so Flux Gourmet is an easily digestible delicacy for the those with only a slightly advanced palate.