I recently watched & reviewed the two cinematic elements of Björk’s multimedia project Biophilia: Biophilia Live & When Björk Met Attenborough. Both films make outlandish claims about science, art, and nature that could have been pretentious drivel in the wrong context, but come across as both personal & fun in Björk’s capable hands. Biophilia is a vast, ambitious intellectual exercise, but one that never feels labored or pompous. Drawing Restrait 9, conversely, is a pompous multimedia project Björk participated in, the exact kind of pretentious drivel she avoided when her own hands were on the wheel.
The film Drawing Restraint 9 is one element of a project that includes sculptures, books, photographs and drawings. It’s a single entry in the much larger Drawing Restraint art project that’s been ongoing since 1987 and currently in the Drawing Restraint 19 phase of its evolution. It’s the work of visual artist Matthew Barney, whose now defunct personal relationship with Björk is the subject of her most recent release, a heart-wrenching breakup album titled Vulnicura. Björk plays a large role in the film Drawing Restraint 9, both composing the music & playing one of the main characters opposite Barney himself. As it is a mostly dialogue-free affair with a very loose narrative, her musical contributions are a vital aspect of the production and one of the only pleasant elements in play (until it too takes a savage dive at the film’s climax). Drawing Restraint 9 is a work of avant garde filmmaking, the kind of art that dares you to hate it. It’s a dare I accept often.
The film opens with an unidentified figure carefully wrapping organic material in beautifully delicate packages. There’s a care & precision to the ceremony that’s both suggestive of the portrayals of precise, careful ceremonies to come as well as the overall craft of the movie itself. Barney’s background in visual art is constantly on display in some truly impressive images of the dance teams, tea ceremonies, and working class fisherman that participate in the mysterious rituals of a Japanese whaling ship. Very little dialogue is provided for context of how this all fits together. At almost 80min into its massive 3 hour run time, a few, sparse lines provide a brief glimpse into the occasion & purpose of the elaborate tea ceremony that takes place aboard the whaling ship, but it’s not a story that wants to be understood completely. It instead wants to be effective visually.
The narrative-free images are not the problem. There is an entertainment value to ambiguity & obfuscation that Drawing Restraint 9 could have achieved, but it’s as if the film deliberately wanted to be devoid of entertainment as well. The climactic tea ceremony/mating ritual is a perfect encapsulation why the picture doesn’t work in this respect. As the characters played by Björk & Matthew Barney sensually gut each other with knives on a sinking ship in the film’s sole moment of action (as opposed to its endless portrayals of preparation), the music becomes aggressively horrendous. A lone male voice & an arrhythmic woodblock combine to create without question the single most unpleasant song I have ever heard in my life. The disgusting surgical gore in this scene is violent enough to get its point across without the somehow even more painful sound design. Minutes after the gore stops the song continues to soldier on, leaving an intensely bitter taste in its wake. It turns out Björk’s potent approach to music can be used for evil as well as good.
In addition to her distinctive musical contributions, it’s easy to see Björk’s fingerprints elsewhere in Drawing Restraint 9. There are themes about humanity’s inseparable connection to nature running throughout and the final line she sings is “Nature conspires to help you”, something you could reasonably expect to hear in Biophilia or The Juniper Tree. She appears on screen as the first sign of a natural image, perched on beachside rocks in furs. Aboard the whaling ship she is treated as royalty, as if she were Mother Nature incarnate. It’s a role and an image that fits her well, but like with the violent climax, any entertainment value is severely undercut by Matthew Barney’s pretentious, overwrought inclinations. The farfetched philosophy of Biophilia is tempered by a desire to entertain & include, while Drawing Restraint 9 is the result of an ego (or two) unchecked. The images Barney crafts are undeniably powerful, but utilized poorly in my opinion.
Of course, I’m admitting a bias here in this preference between the Drawing Restraint & Biophilia projects. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m typically a less artsy and more fartsy kind of an audience. The two albums Björk recorded during this phase of her career, Medúlla & Volta, are the only two she’s released in my entire lifetime that I honestly don’t enjoy, which may be part of the problem. But maybe the problem is bigger. Maybe the problem is that I hate Matthew Barney’s aesthetic (or at least think he should stick to sculptures & still images). Maybe I hate avant garde cinema. Maybe I hate all artists everywhere. I’m not sure. I do know I hate Drawing Restraint 9, though. I hate this movie.