Art star Matthew Barney's unconventional films—he's most famous for his five Cremaster films—mangle the standard divisions between music video, performance art, and sculpture. Rising out of this categorical rubble are fantastical works like Drawing Restraint 9—a meticulous tale of metamorphosis that unfolds on a Japanese whaling ship. Barney takes a lead role alongside his girlfriend Björk, whose soundtrack floats like a ghost from a Japanese Noh opera above the drones and heaves of the giant, arctic-bound boat.
Drawing Restraint isn't a big departure from Barney's Cremasters and their obsessively ordered alter-worlds of androgynous body parts, labor-intensive rituals, petroleum jelly sculptures, and sexualized athletics. And like the Cremasters, the film has little more than five sentences of dialogue and fits within a larger cycle of work by the same name—the first Drawing Restraints were actually performances Barney made in 1987, involving trampolines, Vaseline, surgical latex hosing, and other obstacles and feats of self-imposed endurance.
To his credit, Barney finally leaves behind the macho antics of his past work for the softer pursuit of making out with Björk below deck. Playing the "occidental guests," the couple are invited onboard, groomed, undressed, and wrapped in fur garments for a rigidly performed Shinto tea ceremony. The ceremony finishes, and a flood of liquid half-submerges the room, leading to an intimate mating ritual. While the crew above them performs various tasks to a large, semi-hardened vat of petroleum jelly, the couple's lovemaking winds to a climax of mutilation and rebirth.
As a filmmaker, Barney is a master at moving between extremes of scale. His films reveal grandiose proportions—giant ships, legions of choruses, massive sculptures and landscapes—while also considering every detail with an astonishing level of craft. Here, every gesture and object is part of an alien, ritualized system in a faux-Asian mythology—and even if I could care less about the meticulous, narcissistic symbolism propping up Barney's films, what results can be breathtakingly bizarre and beautiful.