Since 2009’s Katalin Varga, writer-director Peter Strickland has carved out a unique setting at the table of British film, each new serving providing a distinctive course in itself, yet unmistakably sharing the peculiarities of his authorial palate.
Typically, Strickland’s films have one foot planted at the furthest reaches of a genre – be it The Duke Of Burgundy’s art house erotica or In Fabric’s tale of possession – before becoming unmoored, losing their bearings and toppling down a rabbit hole into a place and a time that are at one queasy remove from that of their starting point.
In the generous Q&A which rounds off its screening at Manchester’s HOME, Strickland describes his latest offering, Flux Gourmet, as “a biopic of a band no one’s heard of”. Since the group in question, an absurdist love triangle of an un-pop group unable even to settle on a name, describes itself as a ‘sonic collective’, and since Strickland himself has been a member of his own like ensemble – The Sonic Catering Band being presumably less bedevilled by sexual entanglements – for more than two decades, the film is perhaps the closest he’s likely to stray to a biographical statement. Which is to say not very close at all.
If that sounds like an indulgence on Strickland’s part, part of the film‘s achievement is, in spite of this, that it rarely feels alienating or insular, not least because it’s rooted in recognisable psychologies of jealousy and pettiness. Nonetheless, a certain amount of patience is required. The separate ingredients of the narrative take some time to work up a discernible head of steam, at first appearing to grind through their individual motions, with little indication that there is a method in Strickland’s recipe. Gradually, however, the constituents begin to blend as it becomes clear that, while the directorial hand has been stirring, the heat beneath them has been slowly increasing.
Narrated in subtitled Greek by Stones, the official documentarian of a so-called ‘Sonic Catering Institute’ presided over with all the scheming imperiousness of Catherine the Great by Gwendoline Christie’s Jan Stevens, what unfolds owes as much to his own excruciating battle with a thematically apt bowel condition as to the wider power struggles, both within the group and – in particular – between its self-appointed lead, Fatma Mohammed’s Elle Di Elle, and Stevens herself. Meanwhile, the Mangrove Snacks – very much the Sour Grapes Bunch to the unnamed trio’s Banana Splits – threaten terror and retribution for being denied the residency at the institute that Stevens awarded the bickering three.
While Strickland nails his colours firmly to the mast of the 1970s British sitcom in the Q&A, the tone of Flux Gourmet is arguably closer to the spirit of What We Do In The Shadows, the characters taking themselves with the greatest of seriousness, and the comic set-pieces arising from the corners they paint themselves into. A particularly glorious scene sees Stevens swoop in Asa Butterfield’s Billy, like Monty preying on Marwood in Withnail & I, imbuing her suggestion that they compare the sizes of their mouths with an aching depth of lascivious intent. There’s something, too, of The Monkees’ television show in both the way that the group rises in unison from their parallel single beds each morning, and the manner in which Elle hisses “Jan Stevens!” at their every encounter with the meddling director of the institute, like Dracula confronted by Van Helsing.
A Greek tragedy that is, in at least two senses, also a deadpan comedy, Flux Gourmet is assuredly not Spinal Tap. It is, in the words of the Eddie Cochran song, somethin’ else, and all the more appetising a prospect for that. If, as Strickland seems to suggest, this is his last bow for some time, it’s one that leaves the audience hungry for more.
For more information about showings at HOME, click here.