Peter Strickland has spent lockdown thinking about art - and farts. His latest film Flux Gourmet takes place within the cloistered confines of the so-called Sonic Catering Institute, a wholly fictional retreat that enables performance-art collectives with a gastronomic bent to workshop new projects: plunging microphones into, say, bubbling tureens of soup, or spitting frying pans, or gloopy chocolate gateaux. Its latest artists-in-residence - yet to decide on a name for themselves - are a trio with alarming fringes, fronted by the intense glare of Strickland fave Fatma Mohamed with support from Ariane Labed (the weird wave's Kristen Stewart) and our very own Asa Butterfield (nervier than he ever was on Sex Education, which is saying something). As the group hone their aesthetic, their process - from drawing and chopping board to post-show "tribute" (i.e. group sex with the audience) - is documented by an appointed dossieur or journalist (Makis Papadimitriou, the squat fellow from 2016's Suntan, becoming a specialist in unlovely types), although he appears greatly more preoccupied by the intestinal stress that's left him with acid reflux and bad wind. It's all a matter of taste and digestibility, then: the Institute's queenly director Jan (Gwendoline Christie) reveals she turned her nose up at a rival group of performers after they proved reckless with terrapins. There are lines here that strike the ear as Strickland scratching out a manifesto of sorts: "Give anyone too much freedom in any direction, and it's often counterproductive." Yet Flux Gourmet is also a manifesto with commentary in Greek - the philosopher's tongue - from a narrator who's shifting from one buttock to another and using his role to muse on the potency of his own guffs.
Already, I think you should be getting a sense of how for you this is; there may be no other British director currently at large whose films invite assessment on an individual basis. When Strickland leans too far into artful fetishism - as in 2014's The Duke of Burgundy - I can feel my patience being sorely tried; and at my public screening of Flux Gourmet, the audience of solitary oddballs like myself was audibly split between tittering and stony silence. (The film was going over some viewers' heads to sock others in the gut.) The perversity of the Strickland approach is such that I can think of one pal whom Flux Gourmet was made for, and another fifty it would leave entirely cold. Still, if you are that person, then the film may well strike you as the darnedest thing you will have seen in quite a while. Everything here further underlines this filmmaker's standing as Britfilm's new nutty professor, a creative for whom each new project - and practically every scene in each new project - is its own experiment, an exercise in turning the knobs and dials that have been such a prominent part of this oeuvre since 2012's Berberian Sound Studio and seeing what responses can be generated. The new film is a balancing act: sometimes it's funny ha ha, sometimes it's funny-bizarre, and in its most potent sequences, like the happening that sees Mohamed smearing her naked form with pig viscera, it's both simultaneously. Here, as elsewhere, the soundtrack is prone to discord: the noise of a blender as amplified through a mixing desk or a stomach turning somersaults. But the images are elegantly sticky: cigarette butts discarded in a vat of unused blood, the decanting of a substance that resembles (and may, for the purposes of performance, be) Nutella. One of the film's subjects is provocation, but it also succeeds in being a provocation in itself; every other scene poses a question. On a scale of one to five, what do you make of that?
If Flux Gourmet proved to be more for me than Strickland's previous inquiries - its scenes scoring closer to fives than ones - that's because his characterisation is more vivid than ever, and his performers have a lot of juice in them. Above all else, there is the inherently compelling dynamic of the troupe, a turbulent lot who appear simultaneously on the brink of a breakthrough and on the verge of splitting up. (The movie would make a fine double-bill with both Crimes of the Future and Get Back.) Yet there's also playing to savour from Christie, wafting around the screen and leaving impenetrably thick plumes of art theory in her wake, and from Richard Bremmer as a sherry-sipping physician, prone to withholding his diagnoses as if they were the punchlines to an intestinally long-winded joke. The script has funny turns of phrase: the couple whose break-up is attributed to "dietary differences", much faffing around with a device referred to as a "flanger". But it also holds funny turns of plot. Of course, the journalist will end up being part of the troupe - his toots are too loud to ignore. How, and what results, is less predictable, only fully revealed once the curtain goes back on opening night. Strickland's characters are like odd-shaped jigsaw pieces, mostly lumps, bumps and kinks, but this new set squares up very nicely indeed; like a lot of artists, they'd be good for little else, but they also work well together, and do amount to something after a while. In this way, the film imbues sonic catering with a certain seriousness - it's not a total joke, as it would be in, say, a Christopher Guest comedy, and just as fascinating a process as making movies or music. That allows Strickland to pass at least semi-sincere comment on the realities (as well as the absurdities) of making art, and the art here is as striking, cathartic and therapeutic as anything you'll witness in a gallery or workshop setting: a means of letting go or off, or simply following something through. Yet Strickland's fictional performance art improves upon a lot of actual performance art by being clearly, forcefully funny - as clearly, forcefully funny as a fart. You just need it in you to get the joke, that's all.
Flux Gourmet is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.