Peter Strickland wants to break taboos. The man behind films about giallo sound technicians (Berberian Sound Studio), BDSM-practicing lepidopterists (The Duke of Burgundy), and haunted department store dresses (In Fabric) has returned with Flux Gourmet, in which a sonic collective take up residency at an institute devoted to culinary and alimentary performance.
As the institute’s head Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) enacts power manipulations to generate her desired result from the group, its performing trio (Fatma Mohamed, Asa Butterfield, Ariane Labed) have their own creative clashes. All the while on the sidelines is Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), the institutes ‘dossierge’ (press man), witnessing this strife while dealing with a plight himself—increasingly pervasive stomach issues of which he’s too embarrassed to speak. When the collective’s leader Elle (Mohamed) hears of Stones’ trips to the gastroenterologist, she begins to exploit his plight for their performances, leaving him crestfallen and further isolated from the world around him.
As someone who has been handling stomach issues my whole life, with a diagnosed chronic condition I rarely speak of, I found myself alarmed at how much I connected with Flux Gourmet—a film which treats this distress not as something to be ridiculed, as we’ve so often seen in cinema. Strickland instead takes a tender hand to lead us inside Stones’ perspective and break his latest taboo, opening a world for understanding and support.
I had the pleasure of a, fittingly, quite unconventional conversation with Strickland on how Flux Gourmet’s gastrointestinal explorations came to be—a chat which often led to him turning the interview around on me.
The Film Stage: Watching Flux Gourmet was an interesting experience, as I’ve had gastrointestinal issues my whole life. I’m 31 now, and when I was 20 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune GI disorder —
Peter Strickland: Oh, wow, is that Crohn’s?
So that was what they tested me for first, along with Celiac, and both came back negative. After a few years they finally discovered it was atrophic gastritis, which has very similar symptoms. It’s not something that’s been super comfortable talking about, as is the case with most people, so Flux Gourmet felt really validating in a way. Where did that idea of tackling the distress of stomach issues come from?
Can we go back to you? I mean, how are you managing it? Do you need medication, or a change of diet?
It’s a combination of both. I can only eat three or so things that my stomach can tolerate, so I have to take some daily medications and get monthly shots to help me get the vitamins and nutrients I’m not getting from my diet.
Is there any cure for it? I’m not familiar with that one.
Not at the moment, no. For now, it’s basically just trying to find ways to manage it, but they don’t know too much about it.
Oh, I’m sorry. That’s really, well… I have a couple of friends with Crohn’s. It’s not as intense as what you are describing, their diet can be more varied, but they’ve still got to avoid things—even just, like, onions. One of them was on a liquid diet for like six weeks. I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s one of the reasons I connected with the film a lot—I feel you really tap into aspects of stomach distress that aren’t talked about or explored as much, even in just social conversation.
You know, we’ve shown the film a few times now and at one screening someone said to me, “Your fart jokes are not very funny.” It’s like, well, okay. Sure. So, you’re still dealing with that kind of reaction sometimes. All of these things, especially autoimmune things, it’s becoming more and more prevalent, but there’s so much ignorance around it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I haven’t seen it tackled in film and I felt there was space to look at something that is normally done as a kind of frat boy skit. Which, you know, fair enough. I’m not trying to make any kind of judgment on that at all. I’m just offering something different. That’s all. I just want to go in there and hopefully it can help liberate someone to talk.
I think so much of that [ignorance] is just coming from that. You can’t talk about it. People just laugh or they get embarrassed or they find it vulgar. I think so much of taboo-breaking is opening up conversation where people can feel they’re not ashamed to talk about something that is plaguing them. There’s so much ignorance around Celiac disease. So many people see it as a fad—and of course there are those who take gluten-free food as a lifestyle rather than being something medical—but there’s so much misunderstanding around cross-contamination where you’ll go to a place to get your gluten-free pancake but it’s cooked on the same surface as regular pancakes, you know? So what’s the point of eating it?
All I’m doing is opening the door slightly on it all. I just wanted to look at something which is taboo, and I think that feeds into the film’s theme of taboo. A lot of taboo is kind of pointless—you know, it’s purely to shock people. This had something more going on with it. Fatma’s character is all about shopping people and she hijacks someone else’s suffering, the poor guy. That’s quite a different thing.
Tackling taboo comes up quite often in your work. While watching this I kept thinking of the human toilet moment in Duke of Burgundy, which is a film that destigmatizes a BDSM relationship and treats it the same as any other relationship. Is that recurring theme an intentional one for you?
Yeah, taboo-breaking, anyone can do that. It’s the easiest thing in the world. There are a thousand films more shocking than anything I’ve done. That doesn’t interest me, though, because it doesn’t serve any purpose—something like showing extreme violence. I’m not going to judge it, but it doesn’t break that taboo. I don’t know what it solves. I think if you break a taboo about a consensual sexual activity between adults, which is somehow a bit underground, you’re asking people what is wrong with that? We’ve come a long way now with gay rights, with transgender rights, but the whole thing is still in a bit of a corner. I don’t see what the issue is. Again, it’s consenting adults. As you said, you’re taking the stigma away from it, from bodily things that shouldn’t be taboo. I think there’s a way of talking about these things without being vulgar.
Flux Gourmet does a great job acknowledging the social aspect that comes with stomach distress, both from society’s lack of respect and empathy for this particular issue, and then from the fear of people even finding out you have these issues. Even people with regular GI systems can deal with the discomfort of holding in flatulence because they don’t want to feel embarrassed. How did that social aspect come into the film?
It was very much putting myself in his shoes. We’ve all been there, right? Even the healthiest of human beings has always been in that kind of situation. It’s amplified here, where he’s sleeping in the same room with these people, which is a nightmare for him. Stones is, you call it in America, the EPK [Electronic Press Kit] person, the behind-the-scenes person. He’s the person that’s supposed to be invisible and he becomes the opposite of that. And that’s the perfect job for him. He wants to be invisible. He wants to be dealing with those bands, as they’re all about noise.
I’m obsessed with noise. I grew up with noise bands, like Whitehouse and Swans and Suicide. It serves a purpose for all of those characters in very different ways––theoretically, or as a catharsis for someone like Lamina. For Stones it’s a way to hide. Noise is the best way to hide his problems, so he can release himself. He’s sort of trying to get through this nightmarish situation. To have a colonoscopy is bad enough, but to have it in front of an audience is hell on earth.
There’s that line he has when he’s having it, he says about something so private sacrificed for the sake of art. I guess that links into what most of us do when you write your own scripts that you direct. You’re playing this game with an audience. How much of yourself are you exposing? I tend not to say what is or isn’t real, but you run the risk of people making all kinds of assumptions about your life. I read this very touching article by Caspar Salmon in The Guardian about having phimosis and getting circumcised. I just thought: wow, people can be that brave to talk about these things—people who’ve had breast cancer and gone through the operation and can open the door for other people to be more open about it. It’s just not healthy to hide these things. I’m half-Greek, and the Greek talk about their problems.
I’m English, originally, so I come from a people who really don’t talk about their problems much. I’ve grown up my whole life being conditioned to not talk about things. So seeing a film specifically talking about this thing I’ve so often held back talking about was really encouraging.
Yeah, I was quite shocked when you said it. Just curious, the three things you can eat: are potatoes amongst them?
Sort of, yeah. So, the three things I’ve found I can safely eat are baked potato chips, baked chicken, and white rice.
Can you have sugar?
No, so it’s pretty much those things without anything added to them—no spices or seasoning or any of that.
Ah, yeah, spices are a classic trigger. Can you have pasta? As in, wheat pasta?
I haven’t tried it in a while, but last time I did it didn’t go well. Though with something that’s so tough to diagnose like this, and doesn’t have a cure, a lot of it is trial-and-error. There’s a possibility that maybe something that didn’t work for me five years ago might be okay for me now, but it’s scary to try when the last time I had it left me in bed in agony for days.
Sorry, I don’t want to pry, but I do feel you’re being very open with me. Are you open with other people? Can you feel the confidence to talk about it with other people?
In general, no, not particularly. I’ve been in a relationship with my partner for about five years now, but even when we first started dating I didn’t talk about it with them. I didn’t even eat around them for years. But then the closer we got, at some point I sort of had to reveal more of myself to them. Other than them, though, I don’t really talk about it much.
Yeah, talking can’t be an instant cure, but I do think talking does help. A lot of that holding in… the bloating you can get from Celiac or Crohn’s or irritable bowel syndrome… it’s just not healthy to have that amount of distension. I’m getting like one of those fake Internet doctors now. I’m not a doctor. [Laughs] We’ve had enough of fake Internet doctors the last two years. I better not say too much because I am a layman when it comes to these things. I have friends who have dealt with similar stuff, though.
Something I never forgot was a friend of mine: her son has a peanut allergy and she was on a plane with him and this man started eating peanuts next to her. She explained why she’d prefer if he didn’t have them, and he just didn’t give a shit. He was just like, “Well, it’s my right. I can eat what I want.” That’s extraordinary. There’s so much ignorance, and it doesn’t help when you see it played as a joke in a film.
I got into an argument with someone about this where she said, “Oh, everyone knows the difference between right and wrong.” Everyone knows if you hit a kid, if you’re watching Tom and Jerry and he hits him over the head, everyone knows it’s wrong. Well, yeah, because every human being knows it’s going to hurt, but a lot of human beings don’t know an allergen is a poison to a certain person. It’s like that line Fatma says in the film: “Something so tasty for me that could be so deadly for someone else.” But of course I don’t want to turn this film into some touring thing that should be shown at clinics and schools. [Laughs] It’s meant to be entertainment, obviously. You do these things, but you do have these bugbears that you want to get off your chest—and yeah, it did come out of frustration. I can’t deny that.
When Stones first starts talking about flatulence, there is almost an instinct to laugh as a social response—since, as you’ve said, stomach issues are often used as comedy—but the longer he talks and we see his suffering the more serious it becomes. It’s more in the dynamics of the collective that the humor of the film emerges.
Yeah, absolutely. That was the thing—to take something which is normally done as a punchline or as humor, and to treat it with solemnity. Whether we succeed or not, that’s not for me to say, but that was our aim. And the humor to me came from elsewhere—the bickering, this kind of Spinal Tap type of band politics.
You mentioned the noise element of the film earlier, and your background in that world. Your films are such a sensory experience—not just sight and sound, but there’s also this feeling that I can almost taste and feel your films. There’s a tactile nature to them. Is that something you think about much when constructing your films—the sensorial experience the audience will have?
Not hugely. What I do focus on is atmosphere—which, I guess the byproduct of an atmospheric film is what you are describing. I think it all comes from the same thing. Seeing Eraserhead when I was 16, I was blown away by Alan Splet’s work—just extraordinary. Even now when I think about it, and how I had this complete flip in my head about how you approach sound. Before, it was always illustrating something, even the most bombastic sound, it was still illustrating an explosion or a spaceship or something. Suddenly, here’s something which is expressing a state of mind and taking all these sounds that most sound work tries to eliminate and instead putting it to the foreground—the sound of the plumbing and the radiator.
Around that time, or a little bit later, I got into a lot of those shoegaze bands that were using noise. Especially coming from Reading, that was like shoegaze central with Slowdive and Chapterhouse, and Ride next door in Oxford. So much of it was about texture and atmosphere, so we put a lot of emphasis on that, on the type of sound—not just digitally making something, but getting a flanger and using the actual physical thing and putting sound through that, getting a Copicat tape delay, getting that gristle to the sound. Even things like that sound in the morning that we got from those cereal packets… I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this legally, it was Kellogg’s. You know when you collect and send off those vouchers you get, like, an alarm clock? It was a really old one. We had gotten it from eBay; I think it was 30 years old or something. It was on its last legs and sounded completely fake, which I loved.
We’re doing things like taking fragments of Fatma’s voice and burying them into the mix, so you hear a lot of imprints of her voice sometimes. It’s almost as if you’re half-asleep and you just hear little things. I was always kind of into that because I think the noise I was into was often quite dreamy noise. It was the kind of noise you could fall asleep to. There were two sides to my obsession with noise: one was the really confrontational thing, like Swans or Whitehouse, which is very cathartic and aggressive; and then the other was this side.
As we wrap, I want to say again that I really appreciate what you’ve done with this film. I was nervous coming into this interview because I knew I would regret it if I didn’t talk to you about the film validating so much of my own experience, but of course I wasn’t sure how you were going to respond to me mentioning that, so thanks so much for the conversation.
Of course. I’m really sorry you’re dealing with that. I hope medicine improves enough that they can solve it, and with autoimmune issues in general. Again, I don’t want to be an Internet doctor or anything, but I hope there’s something to break through. I really hope you can recover. It’s interesting: when the reviews came out the film polarized people, and most people hated it, but even some of the good reviews I felt didn’t quite get it. This one review I remember came in laughing about the fart stuff, and it’s like: “Well, you don’t really get it, do you?” You can kind of tell who’s been through this sort of thing or who has people close to them who have. Even good reviews can be frustrating. [Laughs]
Flux Gourmet releases in theaters and on demand on June 24.