Contemporary art world mastermind Matthew Barney often comes across like David Lynch without the sense of humor and cheery belief in cinematic mischief. Barney is a beloved abstract artist, using all forms of media to challenge, intimidate, and provoke. His most widely known work is the "Cremaster" series, which used alternately horrific and beautiful visual language to take audiences into to the underworld of surrealism and arrogance.
"Drawing Restraint 9" is Barney again creating something tenaciously abstract, but this time the result is more serene and approachable. To describe a plot is pointless, but in the briefest of explanations: "Restraint" follows two strangers (Barney and his real-life squeeze, Bjork) as they board a Japanese whaling vessel, dressing in elaborate "Shinto" wedding attire, and embarking on a physical transformation. Also being created on the ship is a massive petroleum jelly sculpture, which slowly cools while onboard, and is eventually harvested with customary whaling methods. I should also mention that the film runs 135 minutes and contains only one sequence of dialog.
Yes, "Restraint" is an odd film, and truly belongs more as an installation at the local modern art museum than as an addition to the art house multiplex. Barney's artistic temperature isn't for everyone, but "Restraint" isn't nearly as tedious as the "Cremaster" films can be. Using primal sounds and some musical selections by Bjork as a score, Barney lulls the viewer in with his perfume of lunacy, pacing the action slowly, but recognizing that the art of creation (the jelly molds, building the wedding attire) is much more interesting than deliberately assailing the audience with coo-coo-for-cocoa-puffs visuals. I was never bored with "Restraint," and I enjoyed Barney's mediations on nature and the rampant use of separation symbolism.
There are far too many themes and ideas at play in "Restraint" to get a firm hold on the picture for consumption. Not that clarification for all the shenanigans presented is needed, but Barney's work doesn't seem to invite the level of interpretative fun that often fuels coffee houses past closing time on rainy Saturday nights. "Restraint" is chilly with ideas on sexuality (expectedly, there's a lot of vaginal symbolism here – it all comes back to the vagina with these guys), creation, isolation, metamorphosis, and ultimately the world of whales, never breaking away into interesting profound realms that usually make this type of cinema bearable. Barney bends patience breaking points even further with a mid-movie, meticulously choreographed tea ceremony that stops the movie dead with its numbing indulgence, but should blow the minds of those predisposed to Barney and his needling ways.
The old Barney comes out to play in the final 45 minutes of the picture, which takes a hard left turn into gooey gore and darkness. It's quite a change from the peaceful opening of the film, and submits even more confounding imagery, some perhaps a smidge too aggressive and sloppy. It takes a MA in Barneyisms to fully drain out the underlying meaning of it all, and, by this point, the filmmaker has failed to provide a reason why we should care. "Restraint" has astonishing moments of undeniable beauty and curious ritualized transformations, and I would recommend this film to anyone new to Barney's work. Still, the artist hasn't quite mastered the lure of mystery to hypnotize the viewer; however, "Drawing Restraint 9" shows him inching closer to achieving that ideal level of cinematic skill.
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