(Matthew Barney, USA, 1997) 55 minutes


Director: Matthew Barney
Producers: Barbara Gladstone, Matthew Barney
Screenplay: Matthew Barney
Cinematography: Peter Strietmann
Music: Jonathan Bepler
Ursula Andress (The Queen of Chain)
Matthew Barney (Her Diva/Her Magician/Her Giant)
Joanne Rha, Susanne Rha (The Queen's Ushers)

Reviews and notes

The completion of Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle amplifies individual episodes' meaning, but hardly clarifies it: the series simply becomes more grandly enigmatic than its constituent parts. The episodes were made out of numerical order - 5 was the third in the series - but the cycle can at last be seen to revolve around its final creation, the monumental Cremaster 3, which connects the American motifs of 1 and 2 with the European settings of 4 and 5.

CREMASTER 5 is stripped of the farcical humour that marks the rest of the series: this is the one episode that operates entirely in tragic mode, with Barney's idiosyncratic kitsch asking to be taken seriously as a Decadent-styled fin de sicle aesthetic rapture. Set in Budapest, apparently in the 19th century, 5 is a self-enclosed vignette - as opposed to the sprawling diversity of 2 and 3 - in which the Queen of Chain, lip-synched with regal froideur by Ursula Andress, laments the death of the Magician, with whom she remembers sharing a tryst in a snowy forest. Lushly mounted but more sombre than the other episodes, this is Barney's take on operatic historical romance: his version of a Mayerling or a Senso.

Barney - variously sculptor, draughtsman and highly athletic performance artist - is a complete auteur in the sense that no element is left to chance. It is as if everything is generated directly from his unconscious, to a degree that even Cronenberg or Lynch might envy; every object, down to an oddly formed triangle played in the orchestra, has the distinct shape and texture of a Barney object, even when not actually created by him. A case in point is the flamboyantly ruffed Jacobin pigeon - a living thing that appears unnatural, fabricated, just the type of phenomenon prized by Des Esseintes, the aesthete hero of J.K. Huysmans' novel Rebours. And the film maintains a tone of late 19th-century Romantic dandyism, as lush as an Ingres canvas, as sombrely fantastic as a Gustave Moreau: an impressive example of an American artist imaginatively adopting a European iconography.

The film works by parallels and doublings: the Magician, the Diva and the Giant seem to be versions of one man, all played behind ornate walrus moustaches by Barney himself. There are also resonances with the other films, more or less explicit. The pearls bobbing on the surface of the pool visually recall the beehive structures of 2, while the Sprites - mutant Asian naiads with salamander frills - are relatives of the playful faeries of 4. The Diva's fatal stage-scaling is a variant on the ascents of the entered apprentice in 3, while the Magician's shackles recall the feats of Harry Houdini, himself a character in 2. That Houdini was actually born in Budapest in 1874, conceivably at the very moment this story takes place, suggests a sort of rebirth by metempsychosis.

What is unusual about the Diva's performance is that it takes place on stage in front of a single privileged viewer, the Queen, who is herself performing. The suggestion is that Barney?s viewer too is obliged to perform - to 'sing' meaning into the spectacle just as the Queen of Chain 'narrates' it with her aria. Notably, her lament, set to Jonathan Bepler's elegantly austere score and carried by Adrienne Csengery's soaring voice, has a precise meaning, although it won't be available to non-Magyar speakers.

CREMASTER 5 is certainly the point in the series where Barney finds his own voice as a film-maker of considerable elegance rather than as an art-video maker with a talent for exhorbitant mise en scene. The editing is no longer purely rhythmic or concentrated on establishing parallels, but fluid and suggestive. This is also where Barney truly begins to collaborate with Bepler and DoP Peter Strietmann to develop the richly exotic Gesamtkunstwerk that reaches its apogee in episode 3. A distinctive camera style is added to the earlier diagram-like overhead shots, notably an eerie Steadicam glide and the use of wide angles, hovering over snowy forests or gazing up at the frescoed dome of the opera house. The precision of Streitmann's digital camerawork accentuates the contrasting textures of Barney's sculptural elements: the stark waxy white plastic of the Magician's manacles set against the lush satins of the Diva's outfit and the finery of the Queen's Tudor-style entourage.

Similar contrasts, suggesting incompatible elements forced together in an imaginative hothouse, dominate Gabe Bartalos' make-up effects, at once beautiful and nightmarish. The underwater characters partake of both sea creature and vegetable: the Giant, apparently modelled on Bronzino's portrait of Andrea Doria, wears bulb-like thigh boots resembling courgette flowers. (The watery motif no doubt partly explains Barney's casting of Andress, best remembered for surging Venus-like from the waves in Dr No.)

Bepler's score imparts a bleak grandeur that can be taken at face value - setting a tone of emotional seriousness that dominates even in the face of such screamingly bizarre imagery as the Diva's flattened head flipping over on the stage floor like a sticky squashed sweet. If much of the series has been received by critics as detached posturing, there is no doubting the emotional charge - tenderness, even - of CREMASTER 5, as in the single close-up of Andress' cold bruised eyes. Barney's adoption of kitsch preciosity finds its most refined expression in the final shot. A drip of liquid from the Queen's mouth falls like a tear into the pool below, separating magically into two and forming ripples, before the pearls drift back across the pool like a closing curtain: certainly the most elegiac sign-off note in the history of video art. Gorgeously inscrutable, 5 may be a simulacrum of the emotional highs of grand opera, but it could conceivably make you shed pearly tears of your own.
- Jonathan Romney, Sight And Sound, January 2004.

Weblink: Synopsis from Cremaster

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