Matthew Barney - Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)

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Drawing Restraint 9
A Restraint LLC production. (International sales: Celluoid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Matthew Barney, Barbara Gladstone. Directed, written by Matthew Barney.

With: Matthew Barney, Bjork, Susil Osoma.

A tapestry of sensuous, striking and sometimes disturbing imagery, "Drawing Restraint 9" marks the latest cinematic visit to the wacky world of experimental artist Matthew Barney, whose five-film "Cremaster" cycle recently globetrotted the fest and rep circuit. Barney's key collaborator this time round is his wife, popstar Bjork, who co-wrote and performs most of pic's music and stars opposite Barney as a visitor to a Japanese whaling ship. The Icelandic siren's involvement may lure extra viewers to the rocky shores of "Restraint," but Barney's defiantly recondite aesthetic will hold the pic in the same kind of restricted distribution pattern as "Cremaster."

Easy enough to describe but almost impossible to decipher, the core idea of "Drawing Restraint 9" is, according to the pic's press notes, "the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity." Probably only Barney, his circle and most loyal followers will be able to explain how that notion relates to what's seen on screen, although it still makes for frequently mesmerizing viewing.

Action takes place primarily aboard real Japanese whaling ship the Nisshin Maru, whose crew comprise the film's extras. In the pic's first major sequence, workers assemble a roughly 15-foot-long mold on the top deck in the shape of a lozenge with a horizontal slash through it. Icon appeared throughout the "Cremaster" series and has become Barney's de facto logo.

Into the mold, the workers pump hundreds of gallons of hot liquid petroleum jelly that slowly cools and coagulates to form a white, vanilla-pudding-like mass (called "The Field," per press notes, although the name is never mentioned onscreen). Later, it's carved, sliced and left to disintegrate into an icky, gloopy mess.

Meanwhile, while "The Field" is being filled, two unnamed Westerners, played by helmer Barney himself and Bjork, separately make their way to the boat. Once aboard, servants help them dress in strange variants of Japanese wedding costumes. The guests then enter a cabin for a tea ceremony with a Japanese host (Susil Osoma). In pic's only spoken interlude, the host explains the history of the ship in Japanese.

During a storm, the surrealistic detritus provide a melting pot for Western and Asian cultures to collide, matched by a parallel blurring between humans and whales. A melancholy song sung by Will Oldham at the film's beginning, its lyrics derived from a Japanese whaler's letter to General MacArthur, ties together the whaling and East-meets-West themes. The process of making art seems to be more the point than delivering a tidy author's message to the audience.

Bjork's sometimes pretty, sometimes discordant noodlings show off her unique vocal stylings to fine effect, and are accompanied often by harps and an ancient Japanese instrument called the sho (like pan pipes, but more intricate). Additional original compositions are based on the traditional growling musical performances in Noh theater.

Top-quality prosthetics and make-up devised Gabe Bartalos, and seamless visual effects work by Matthew Wallin complete a polished technical package.

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