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  • TBC
  • Fantasy
  • 2005
  • 135 mins

Drawing Restraint 9

Drawing Restraint 9


Multimedia artist Matthew Barney harpoons the mysteries of life, sex and creation in this monstrous whale of an arty tale


If you have seen the five films that made up Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle (1995-2002), or the bizarre piece of mechanised autoerotica that he contributed to the portmanteau sex-art film Destricted (2006), then Drawing Restraint 9 will not come entirely as a surprise.

Barney has specialised over the years in grand, if obscure, artistic visions that use the moving image as their fluid canvas, and while Drawing Restraint 9 may be an epic set on a whaling vessel, do not expect anything like the narrative solidity of 'Moby Dick'. Here, everything is subject to scarring and atrophy, and nothing retains its form for long.

In the film's prologue, two fossil fragments are wrapped into immaculate parcels, as Will Oldham can be heard singing in English the text of a letter sent by a Japanese citizen to General MacArthur in gratitude for the lifting of the US moratorium on whaling. "A million-year-old fossil", goes the lyric, "I send to you. This comes from my family and the ancient sea. A prehistoric impression of the mother krill, she feeds the noble whale and offers you longevity." These motifs - the packaging of natural materials as aestheticised objects, the hospitable traffic between east and west, the tradition that links ancient life to modern - will recur throughout Drawing Restraint 9.

A giant mould aboard the Japanese factory whaling vessel Nisshin Maru is filled with liquid petroleum jelly (itself derived from the remains of ancient life), which will gradually solidify, and then be carved and reformed by the ship's crew, before ultimately being allowed to collapse into a primal ooze. Meanwhile, the vessel takes on two Occidental guests (Barney and his wife and collaborator Björk), who are then dressed in traditional Shinto marriage costumes, treated by their Host (Oshima) to an ambergris-tinged maritime variation on a formal tea ceremony, and regaled with stories about the vessel's history.

Finally, as liquid petroleum seeps into the tea-room during a storm, the couple engage in a bloody, transformative act of passion which returns them to the waters from which all life has emerged - in a field of icebergs where liquid and solid, sea and shore are difficult to delineate. For, like the bridge under construction glimpsed near its beginning, Drawing Restraint 9 attempts to span the gulf between a range of oppositions: East and West, man and woman, hard and soft, ancient and modern, human and animal, nature and culture, life and death.

Where most other directors would be unable to resist direct comment on the controversies of Japan's whaling industry, Barney's approach is altogether more oblique, and extends far greater sensitivity to the cultural traditions of his hosts. Here whaling, though repeatedly figured, is never explicitly depicted, and its place in the endless re-cycling of life is made to seem no less mysterious or ritualistic than Barney's own petrochemical follies. There is, towards the end, a graphic display of flesh being stripped from the bone with a whaler's flensing knife, but this will occur in a most unexpected context, and turn out to be as much a symbol of metamorphosis and renewal as of destruction.

The abstract, hermetic content in Drawing Restraint 9 is much closer to what might ordinarily be found on the walls of a gallery, and at 135 minutes, it might seem, at least to filmgoers reared on the Hollywood mainstream, to be somewhat akin to watching paint dry (or jelly melt).

Still, it would be a pity for viewers of a more adventurous (and patient) bent to miss Drawing Restraint 9; for Peter Strietmann's sweeping cinematography, joined with Barney's baroque and evocative imagery and Björk's rich soundtrack, ensures that a cinema with a big screen and a good sound system is exactly where this astonishing film belongs. Seldom have the rituals and processes of creation (artistic or otherwise) been presented on such a grand scale.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Matthew Barney, Sosui Oshima, Rumi Tsuda, Tomoyuki Ogawa, Kei Takahashi, Shigeru Akahori, Björk, Mayumi Miyata
  • Director: Matthew Barney
  • Writer: Matthew Barney
  • Producer: Matthew Barney
  • Photographer: Peter Strietmann
  • Composer: Björk

In a nutshell

A work as vast, monstrous, and mysteriously graceful as a whale.

by Anton Bitel

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