A band performs music using food and digestion.

The outré cinema of the director Peter Strickland, the man behind recent art-house oddities Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy, and In Fabric, conjures up all sorts of wild imagery, wilder costumes, wildest sounds. There have been killer frocks annihilating washing machines, and there have retro-chic sado-masochist lesbians acting out their favorite water-sports fantasies. There have been menstruating mannequins, for heaven’s sake.

And yet for all his queer, transgressive tendencies there’s always been the thump of genuine tenderness slamming beneath these stories’ ribcages. His latest, Flux Gourmet, is no different — it just moves its compassion slightly southward, proving that daffy accents and elaborate head-bows are nothing compared to one perfectly-timed toot.

How far does a fart joke pfft if a fart joke can pfft far? Is it more of a pip, or more of a squeak? A long trombone or a rusty trawler? Does it shake, rattle, roll? There are all sorts of ways to approach the deeply human yet forever taboo subject of flatulence. One of the stories in the centuries-old Middle Eastern folk tale compendium One Thousand and One Nights tells of a man who is forced to flee his country because he accidentally lets out a lil’ floof at his wedding. Founding father Benjamin Franklin, who invented bifocals and the catheter, once turned his megawatt wisdom upon the subject in a (satirical) letter titled “Fart Proudly” wherein he implored the great scientific minds of his age to find some way to make our gas smell not quite so ghastly. “Perhaps a glass of limewater drank at dinner?” he proposed. And that’s all centuries before Mel Brooks turned a cowboy bean dinner into a symphony of stink with Blazing Saddles.

The passing of wind’s been passed down the ages like a smelly little football, and everybody’s had their run. For the movies, the lighting up of farts up à la Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber is the typical route — crude little giggles, the lowest-brow of laughs. But scatological provocateurs like Pier Paolo Pasolini and John Waters, in films like Salò, Pink Flamingos, and Polyester, have plumbed the deeper depths of back-end bustin’, slicing up our provincial age like so much cut cheese. Amadeus lifted his skirts and poofed his way straight to a Best Picture Oscar, while The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa merrily sang of “clear[ing] the savannah after every meal” to the impressionable young minds of a generation of children. You learn the ways of methane early and hard!

With such iconic filmic flatulence already plentiful, I didn’t think there was much left to make a stink about when it came to tail-wind humor. However, Flux Gourmet proved there’s still some honk left in this specific horn. Leave it to my favorite goofball iconoclast to find a way! 

Flux Gourmet tells the story of Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), the in-house documentarian at the Sonic Catering Institute, where teams of avant-garde musicians come to stick microphones into boiling and bubbling saucepans. His job is to interview and photograph the bands over the course of their four-week residencies, documenting their tortured process of turning food into music as they inch toward their big final performance. The only problem this time is that it’s Stones himself whose process is backed up. 

As he laments in voiceover:

“Where does the endless wind that blows my stomach up like a balloon come from? Why does it persist? When I see joy and abandon my mind always reverts to this. Why can one stomach be so free and another can’t?”

His indigestion has indigestion, and the diabolical house doctor Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer) is no help; he seems to delight in Stones’ suffering. Trapped in residence with the new band, Stones has no respite, no relief. And as funny as Flux Gourmet is — and it’s a howler — Strickland’s film plays all of Stones’ agony as deadly serious. There is only one fart in the whole of Flux Gourmet, a brilliantly timed little squeak that Stones manages to steal as he hides himself in some rose-bushes mid-dinner. There are scenes of killer mimes wielding terrapins and Gwendoline Christie having a dramatic breakdown while wearing a satiny bedtime version of the bunny suit from A Christmas Story. And yet farts, the eternal punchline, are kept just out of reach. You could say it’s the silent but deadly approach.

[Strickland] wants us to take gastrointestinal distress with a straight face amid all of the sonic catering absurdity

It’s a glorious tactic of restraint on Strickland’s part, and in many an interview about the movie he’s made it clear this was his intention — he wants us to take gastrointestinal distress with a straight face amid all of the sonic catering absurdity. And in it you can feel a bit of the sadist’s discipline from his S&M masterpiece The Duke of Burgundy — a true romance where the push-pull of affection is tested by the subject of human toilets. But then there’s always that tinge to a Strickland joint. He goes his own way, dragging us along for the long strange trip — and bless him for it.

What takes Flux Gourmet‘s fart-denial to the next level is how Strickland mines it for a multi-tiered metaphor about the very nature of Art itself. Marrying a gross-out gag with intellectual exposition becomes the ultimate act of high-browing the lowest. As one of the band members says at one point, “Misunderstanding is the key to our sound.” What is that if not exactly what’s happening in Stones’ own disturbed body? It’s intangible creation itself! 

From the dissolving shrieks of Berberian Sound Studio to the hellish TV commercial static of In Fabric, Strickland’s films have always been obsessed with unnerving soundscapes. A former musician, he credits the atmospheric hum of Eraserhead with being his original cinematic inspiration. And so in Flux Gourmet, seeing him equate the disruption of one’s bowels with the interpersonal rivalries that shape the artistic process itself is sweet music to my ears.

Just don’t release it in Smell-O-Vision.

Flux Gourmet is now in theaters.