Just as the Tiktok-ers and Instagrammites of the world had completed the mainstreaming of ASMR, master of the tactile Peter Strickland has returned to restore the unsettling, alien quality to sensation. In “Flux Gourmet,” his latest and most bizarre film — a hotly contested title he earns with this feverish stew of murdered turtles, torrid orgies, and heartrending fart-tending — texture is everything. The experimental performance group of Billy Rubin (Asa Butterfield), Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed, mesmerizing), and Lamina Propria (Ariane Labed) obsess over every little growl and crunch of feedback in the avant-garde music pieces they generate by plugging modular synthesizers into assorted foodstuffs. The dramatic fulcrum of the plot turns out to be their use of a flanger, an argument over tuning it down a semitone threatening to tear the delicate fabric of the band and their new benefactors asunder. Likewise, Strickland calibrates every microscopic closeup of macerated berries or bubbling gravies for maximum stomach-churning effect.
The granularity of art is serious business at the Sonic Catering Institute, often to the point of deadpan comedy. Despite their unconventional medium of zucchinis and blenders, the unnamed collective fall into almost every cliché of their form, working in well-worn provocateur standards like blood and feces to make their “alimentary ideology” a touch edgier. (The conspicuous, baroque language is more treat than challenge.) As they arrive for their residency at the prestigious haven for those who play with their food, in-house medic Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer) bemoans another round of pretentious preeners. But he’s a blowhard who’ll dress you down for missing a quote from Hippolytus, and as much as Strickland appreciates the absurdity of creative-class egotism, he also respects their craft. Like so much rendered soup fat, the guarded humanity of obsessive weirdoes rises to the top, over the arch jokes at their expense. Strickland can’t possibly snicker at them; he’s one of them.
With “The Duke of Burgundy,” the filmmaker revealed piss play and human toilets to be articulations of vulnerable affection. Such perverse intimacies once again layer the outré over the sentimental, except now they’re all tangled up in the power struggle between the imperious Elle and the Institute’s director, Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie). Billy’s kinks for eggs and nipple stimulation conceal an Oedipal wound in his psyche, recognized and exploited by the women jockeying for control of this odd, insular demimonde. Same goes for the poor in-house documentarian Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), who experiences his painfully stifled wind-breaking not as a gag, but as the chronically flatulent do: a constant source of anxiety that clouds every waking minute and floods the consciousness with resentful envy for the effortlessly unbothered. If this also happens to be funny, that’s just because it’s true.
A foundation of sincere compassion for the universal emotional impulses behind inscrutable art allows Strickland to indulge his eccentricities without tipping over into the snide or twee. A rival crew of sonic caterers known as the Mangrove Snacks torments our characters for landing the gig they couldn’t by hurling dead terrapins from afar, a delightful running bit with the added benefit of enriching this complex hidden subculture. The central trio wakes up every morning in perfect synchronization, Elle and Lamina lighting their first cigarettes before they’ve taken their second breaths. Later on, when they need to execute a daring heist to liberate their precious flanger, they don the head-to-toe leather catsuits straight out of “Danger: Diabolik” that they were apparently prudent enough to pack. Experimental artists are perhaps society’s easiest class of person to make fun of, but here, their quirks hit the same canted angle as their off-kilter surroundings.
Aside from the post-concert dervishes of group sex with moneyed patrons getting in some formalist jollies for Strickland, he’s not overly concerned with critiquing or even commenting upon art-world politics. During the after-dinner orations, the performers must deliver to explicate their work’s animating philosophy; the theoretical yammering doesn’t matter as much as the currents of feeling underneath it. While Strickland’s characters express their innermost selves in terms that we may not immediately recognize, we can nonetheless access them as the tentative tenderness underneath makes itself known. An insert shot implicitly likening a broken egg yolk to a jet of semen seems like a cheeky pictorial pun until Billy re-contextualizes it as an icon of aching desire and lingering hurt all collected in one blob of goop.
This is Strickland’s grand act of prestidigitation; he coaxes out something like poignancy from the peculiar, just as he conjures the visceral and unknowable from ordinary groceries. A flatbread can be the surface of a planet light-years away. A live colonoscopy can be a gesture of submission or the triumph of belonging over isolation. Look close enough at anything, whether it’s a secluded art colony or the inside of a gourd, and you’ll find it contains its own teeming universe. Chocolate mousse will never be the same. [A-]