For their first film together, the artist Matthew Barney and his life partner, the musician Björk, have settled on a simple tale of boy meets girl. Separately, each climbs aboard a great big Japanese whaling ship, partakes in what seems like an extreme spa day (hers includes a bath with whole lemons, his involves a radical eyebrow shave), and is stuffed into an ornately hairy costume.
It's all part of the ancient Shinto wedding rite that our lovers undergo for Barney's ``Drawing Restraint 9," a project whose obvious peculiarity and impenetrable ambitions come from another galaxy. Even David Lynch might need liner notes, director's commentary, or something to fully understand Barney's latest elaborate performance piece.
Barney's previous cinematic adventure was the often ingenious ``Cremaster" cycle, an expensive-looking five-part saga set, seemingly, all over the world. ``Drawing Restraint 9" has a single (albeit cavernous) set and is, by comparison, intimate to the point of being claustrophobic.
This is still as good a location as any for Barney to explore, however obliquely, his ideas of creation, destruction, and renewal, though the most notorious bodily affronts of his previous cinematic adventures are conspicuous by their absences.
So let's talk about what's here. Shall we?
In an introductory scene, Barney shows a stone oozing pus. And not much later, he captures a midsize Japanese parade, whose participants pull a truck that one of them could probably drive. But this just isn't that kind of movie.
Leading the parade down the street and into the harbor is a pack of fan dancers in bright, trippy costumes. They're not Harajuku girls, but Gwen Stefani is bound to watch them shimmy toward the camera in envy. The truck carries a humongous plume that suggests a large Vegas showgirl is missing half her outfit.
Local women start diving to the bottom of the sea, coming up with pearls in their mouths. We're shown hundreds of streamers umbilically stretched from the dock to the whaling ship.
On board, we're treated to shots of men sculpting and molding blubber, some of which is prepared as a kind of offering with shrimp and pomegranate seeds. These and a few other knickknacks are items to look forward to in the Matthew Barney Home Collection. (A CD of Björk's wailing soundtrack for the film is already available.)
The ship's crew is an amiable batch, whom Barney captures naturally. At this point, it's tempting to think the title has something to do with the movie's willingness to hold back. A lot of ``Drawing Restraint 9" could pass for a Frederick Wiseman documentary.
That is until Barney himself arrives. He's in a boat, wearing a coat of Chewbacca fur and a fashionable grizzly-man beard. Not far away is Björk, appearing at the water's edge in a raspberry shawl, looking like a stone nymph, waiting for her ride to the floating spa.
``Drawing Restraint 9" is slow but rarely tedious. The film snowballs into an object of curiosity, even if you're never entirely confident Barney believes in, or even likes, movies. There's a haphazardness to the photography and framing, implying the camera is just a recording device, the best means available for capturing the scale of the artist's undertaking: See, this project actually happened.
Initially, you're fearful that the director might be here to make a self-serving or condescending fetish of Japanese culture. But Barney is not Stefani, and his movie is not as indifferent to Japan as was ``Lost in Translation."
It's true the Japanese folks are here to serve him and Björk, but it soon becomes clear that the pair want only to fetishize the mystique of their relationship. (The credits list them as ``Occidental Guests.") ``Drawing Restraint" easily could have been the ``Shanghai Surprise" or ``Gigli" of the art world. But it's actually like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's ``Double Fantasy," a surreal, vaguely plausible explanation of why two people are crazy about each other.
The film leaves enough room to wonder why Barney would want to see his baby mama eventually transformed into a giant Pokemon. We're also forced to reckon with the unstinting climax, which involves a petroleum-logged consummation. It's David Cronenberg masquerading as classic Barney. A flensing knife is passed between the happy couple along with looks of knowing adoration.
I was too busy watching them slice each other's legs off to notice whether one of mine was being pulled. But as paramours they seem to have reached some wild new sexual frontier. Björk once sang, ``We have to make new love." I guess this is it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.