As Flux Gourmet is released, Fatma Mohamed talks about her provocative actor-auteur collaboration with Peter Strickland and why art must be taken seriously
Peter Strickland’s films are weird to their bones – and wherever his ideas have taken him, Fatma Mohamed has followed. The Romanian actress has appeared in each of the director’s five outlandish features to date, which together form a virtual dictionary definition of the term ‘acquired taste’. But for those willing to indulge his hyper specific vision, they’ll find a world that is sensual and surreal, haunting and hypnotic – and Mohamed is increasingly at its centre. It’s one of the most thrilling actor-auteur relationships in cinema today.
For a flavour of the madness that infects Flux Gourmet, Strickland’s latest, you should know that it’s a film which devotes a significant portion of its runtime to a passive-aggressive argument about the correct use of a flanger. In it, Mohamed plays Elle, the intractable head of a “sonic catering collective” engaged in a month-long residency at an art institution. It’s a demanding role for the actress, who was required to dance naked, smear herself in all manner of unmentionable fluids, and mime giving a colonoscopy on stage for the role. To get her in the zone for one particular scene, a performance, Strickland showed her two videos: one, “a clip of someone slaughtering the animals in an abattoir – you know, the shooting in the head, the blood – and the other, a performance [by a noise musician] where the artist had the microphone in his mouth and was making weird sounds with his vocal chords,” says Mohamed. “It was shocking, but I enjoyed the challenge of bringing the emotions [out] into the body.”
The film has plenty of fun pricking at the pomposity of the ridiculous art-world types it depicts, so much so that it comes as a surprise to learn that Strickland is, in fact, a member of a culinary art collective in real life. Then again, we should be wary of taking Flux Gourmet purely as satire: like Elle’s culinary exploits, Strickland’s films are artistic delicacies that could not exist outside of a nurturing artistic framework. They’re the sort of films that drive Tory ministers to set up cultural spending reviews in despair – and the pretentiousness is absolutely a part of the deal. It’s an ambivalence Mohamed picks up on in our chat.
“I’m quite a serious actress in a way, and sometimes it’s good to make fun of myself because otherwise you get stuck in this too-seriousness,” says the performer, who only recently felt able to see the humour in her performance after several attempts at watching the film on the festival circuit. “It’s good to have a sense of self-irony about our job, but at the same time, you should take your own art seriously – because if you’re not going to take it seriously, then why should others?”
Mohamed had been working as a theatre actress and contemporary dancer in Romania when she stumbled on Strickland’s cinematic universe. The director was in Sfântu Gheorghe when he put out a call for extras in his self-funded first feature, Katalin Varga, and Mohamed bagged herself a small speaking part. She only had one line – “I swear on God I don’t know where they went!” – but clearly, something stuck: when Strickland returned to Romania for a screening of the film, he told her he’d enjoyed working with her, and did she know any languages other than English? Mohamed, who studied Italian at school, said that she did. “I didn’t think for one minute [it would be Italian]; it was one in a million,” says Mohamed. “And he said, ‘Unbelievable, I’m writing a script in Italian and English, would you like to work on my next movie?’”
What followed was an expanded role in Strickland’s breakout second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, and a string of increasingly scene-stealing turns leading up to her starring role in Flux Gourmet. In the former, she starred opposite Toby Jones as a voiceover artist doing overdubs for an Italian giallo film. Mohamed has an extraordinary scene with Jones, the well-meaning sound artist at the heart of the story, where she recounts her sexual abuse by the movie’s director, before switching to Italian to issue what sounds like a curse. The change that comes over her is both subtle and scary. “It’s strange, because already the sound of Italian was making me go to a kind of witchy place,” says Mohamed. “Peter kept saying I don’t want you to cry, I just want shock and I was like, OK, and we did it. But that change really did feel like a light switch going on.”
From there came a small but memorable part in The Duke of Burgundy, where she showed her seductive side as a carpenter who makes furniture for S&M-practising clients. By this point, Mohamed was becoming an integral part of the weird spell Strickland’s films seemed to cast, and she delivered a miniature tour de force with In Fabric, the director’s tale of a haunted red dress that gets its claws into anyone that wears it. As the possibly demonic store clerk Miss Luckmoore, she utters lines of baroquely philosophical sales cant that Strickland seems to have devised specifically to torture his actress as a non-native speaker: “The hesitation in your voice, soon to be an echo in the recess in the spheres of retail.” In a word, she was mesmeric.
“He nearly killed me with that one,” says Mohamed, whose experience on the film was so challenging she ended up hiring a language coach for Flux Gourmet. (Interestingly, she interprets Miss Luckmoore as a kind of karmic figure avenging the forces of global capitalism, as represented by high-street fashion.) “Sometimes I get angry, of course it’s normal with the language, which has been a big struggle. For example, he changed Miss Luckmoore from Miss Linderson at the last moment – before that it was Miss Wigmore or something else. I said to him, ‘Peter, no, it’s not my mother language! So to learn, to learn … it’s another memory to stick in my brain.’ But I can’t be upset with him [for long], even when he’s playing with me. He keeps me on the fire.”
Despite the somewhat hermetically sealed world his films inhabit, Strickland is an insightful director of women, skewering the feathers-and-fine-lace fantasy of femininity he presents through the use of elaborate wigs and copious amounts of face-sitting. Berberian Sound Studio is a pre-#MeToo production which strikes a resonant chord through repeat viewings, and in the new film, Elle’s most righteous moment comes at a dinner party speech where she recites from an old recipe book whose nauseating sexism pours off the page. For Mohamed, “he has a feminine [quality] as a director. He’s seeing us from the inside, [because] we still live in a patriarchal society and even if women are starting to get their places it’s not enough.”
Ultimately, the actress credits a kind of “artistic osmosis” for the success of her collaboration with Strickland – that, and the fact they “only see each other every two or three years”. “We understand each other,” says Mohamed. “When he writes I can see myself doing [what he’s writing about] and I’m not frightened because I know I’m in safe hands. I’m always curious as to what he might be imagining and also for me, what else I can do. It’s provocative.”
Flux Gourmet is out in UK cinemas now.