There seems to be no limit to the torture that Matthew Barney is willing to inflict upon audiences. The avant garde artiste, a darling of the “with-it” set who previously served up the cycle of “Cremaster” films, returns with this hugely tedious opus starring himself, wife Bjork, and a Japanese whaling ship. Mercifully shorter than “Cremaster 3” but still brutally overextended at 143 minutes, this turgid, opaque, whale-obsessed fiasco might be described as one big, festering hunk of blubber.
For those who care to try to make some sense of Barney’s largely wordless “vision,” the picture opens with a celebratory group dance seeing off the ship, after which the crew laboriously prepares some sort of huge gelatinous mold, the gloppy contents of which they later remove and slice into pieces. Why is never explained. Meanwhile two visitors come aboard. One is Bjork, wearing an elaborate outfit festooned with little pompons, and the other Barney, bearded and in what looks like a fur cloak. Both are slowly (and separately) dressed in elaborate Japanese style by geisha-like attendants and, with what appear to be seashells on their feet, are ushered to an empty hold where they’re welcomed by an old man who tells them of the ship’s history and served tea. On deck the crew engage in an elaborate ceremony involving the cut-up pieces of mold and a large lump of ambergris found in the ocean by another vessel. As a storm comes up, below deck Barney and Bjork, half-submerged in the hold, engage in some sexual activity and then apparently disembowel one another and consume bits of each other’s flesh while a screeching voice engages in some caterwauling (in Japanese) in the background, punctuated by whacks on a wood block. (Elsewhere in the picture Bjork’s whining voice fills the soundtrack.) There are also periodic inserts in which some female figures in odd outfits swim about the reefs collecting what would seem to be bits of coral in baskets–though maybe they’re crustaceans.
All of which, one supposes, is intended to say something about marriage (or at least sexual union), the uneasy merging of East and West and reverence for the natural order of things–maybe. But it’s certain that it says a good deal about the size of Barney’s ego. “Drawing Restraint 9” (maybe eight more are to follow–he loves to do things out of order) moves at a glacially slow pace, is highly repetitive but still largely unintelligible, and doesn’t even offer individual images of much distinction (except for some that are genuinely repulsive). Maybe if it were offered in some sort of scratch-and-sniff system, we could smell that ambergris and at least have some olfactory satisfaction, but as it is the picture, like a really bad travelogue, emits quite a different sort of odor.
The press materials for “Drawing Restraint 9” report that the theme of the picture is the connection between “self-imposed resistance and creativity.” Well, if this film represents creativity, put me down for resistance any day.