The division between high culture and low has probably never been more porous than it is right now. (Does anyone even feel comfortable using the words "high" and "low" to describe culture anymore?) But there's still some tension along the border. There probably isn't any better meeting ground for popular storytelling and artistic aspirations than a movie theater, but it's still a little uncomfortable when only the artistic aspirations show up. That hasn't stopped Matthew Barney's films from creeping into the arthouses, first with a tour of his five-part Cremaster Cycle, and now with the Independent Film Channel-released Drawing Restraint 9, a virtually wordless, two-plus hours of odd, ritualistic behavior and ambient music starring Barney and his offscreen partner Björk.
To describe the action is to risk making Barney's ambition sound ridiculous. But maybe that's unavoidable in a film that opens with an elaborate scene of a woman wrapping a present, and ends with... Well, that would ruin it. But suffice to say that it involves human blowholes. In between, Barney and Björk board a Japanese whaling ship and prepare for a ceremony whose final phase may be the only half-hour of filmmaking likely to appeal in equal parts to subscribers of Artforum and Fangoria. Oh, and there's also a large, tablet-shaped sculpture made out of Vaseline.
What's it all about? Per Barney's press notes, "its core idea is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity." Well, maybe. But it works even better as a long, somber, hypnotic, only occasionally dull depiction about how rituals like marriage and impulses like sex change us, and how those changes can be simultaneously scary, liberating, and a little grotesque. Though Drawing Restraint 9 can't help but play more like a museum piece than the sort of thing most people would choose to watch with a bucket of popcorn on a Friday night, Barney's keen sense of composition and entrancing feel for camera movement keep it moving at a pace that rewards immersion.
Restraint raises themes it never explores, nodding to Japanese culture but keeping the focus squarely on Barney and Björk's "Occidental Guests," and virtually ignoring the political firestorm around its primary location. (It is a whaling ship, after all.) It's hard to shake the sense that there's less here than meets the eye, but what meets the eye burns with a rare intensity.