Things that make you go hmmm

Don't try to make sense of Matthew Barney's films - just enjoy the weirdness

<strong>Drawing Res

Not many people could look underdressed while wearing the world's biggest fur coat, a giant snail's shell and a hood like a polar bear's scrotum, but the singer and actress Björk is one of them. This is her get-up for much of Drawing Restraint 9, which is directed by her partner, the artist Matthew Barney. If you're worried about not understanding what's going on because you haven't seen the other Drawing Restraints, don't fret - parts 1 to 8 are actually multimedia pieces that form part of Barney's current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, along with parts 10 through to 15. Besides, when it comes to Matthew Barney, knowing what it's about isn't really what it's about.

The mammoth Cremaster cycle, which sealed Barney's reputation as a film-maker, may indeed concern the divergence of gender in the womb, but to most viewers it could just as easily be about the divergence in the old Social Democratic Party, so long as it was stuffed with the same oddball guest stars (Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer), Cronenbergian grotesqueness and unhinged concepts such as Gary Gilmore's execution reimagined as a rodeo on the Bonneville Salt Flats. It isn't that meaning is irrelevant in his films, but these works are more rewarding to wallow in than to decode. The ideas behind Drawing Restraint 9 can only sound banal when converted from the gooey, gloopy abstract into the hard currency of language. I could tell you the film is about the fluidity of people, art and nature, and how this relates to Japanese culture, but such a description can only be eclipsed by the sight of emaciated women in nurses' whites spraying water through their blowholes and diving for pearls, or any number of images here that can be grouped under the heading "Things you don't see every day".

Drawing Restraint 9 showcases a more serene Barney than was evident in the Cremaster series, although the new film has that same sense of epic space - it takes place aboard the whaling ship Nisshin Maru, where the crew busy themselves with transferring a Vaseline sculpture on to the deck by melting down the petroleum jelly and waiting for it to re-form. The film is very big on any kind of process - that much is evident from the opening scene, in which a woman painstakingly swaddles two fossil-like shells in parchment and ribbons; if she worked on the John Lewis gift-wrapping counter, she'd be employee of the month for the rest of eternity.

Everything carries an air of becalming ritual that precludes absurdity, but which means that nothing ever comes close to disrupting the homogeneous surface. When Barney, who plays one of the ship's "occidental guests" along with Björk, wakes to find that someone has shaved off one of his eyebrows and a strip of his hair, he doesn't go nuts and demand to see the captain; he just inspects himself in the mirror. This fits with the mood of the piece, which is reflective and detached.

But I guess the word I'm avoiding here is "underwhelming". I am no Barney completist - don't you find, like me, that it's never the right time to watch his March of the Anal Sadistic Warrior? - so I can't say how Drawing Restraint 9 relates to his oeuvre. As an individual film, however, it is too ethereal to establish its own identity fully. This sense of incompletion may even be deliberate - isn't the film about how there is no finality in life, just a series of transferences and voyages, whether it be the Vaseline sculpture's journey or the guests' eventual reincarnation? That is fine in theory but, to use a film analogy, it feels like the barn-building sequence from Witness replayed repeatedly. And still the bloody barn is never finished.

Drawing Restraint 9 is a fair film but a great CD. You can get lost in Björk's rapacious and eclectic soundtrack, although it never loses its way. You will hear, among other things, harpsichords, oboes, trombones and children's choirs, as well as Björk herself electronically distorted, and a haunting instrument - the sho, which I'm told comprises 17 reeds and 15 pipes. Anyway, it's gorgeous. I was going to say that she throws in everything except the kitchen sink, but I'm pretty sure I heard one of those in the mix, too.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies