Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The athleticism on display is often awesome to watch and crisp photography gives the landscape a haunting beauty enhanced by Jonathan Bepler's score."

If the goddess Diana (aka Artemis, the virgin huntress) were around today, what would she be doing? The latest blend of dance, myth and metalwork by Matthew Barney (best known for the Cremaster cycle) imagines her relocated to the majestic frozen wilderness of the Sawtooth mountains in Idaho, no longer naked but clad in military fatigues, her deadly bow and arrow replaced by a sniper rifle. Here, in a series of performances loosely based on the story of the goddess' encounter with Actaeon, she pursues not a hunter who has seen her bathing but an artist who might be understood as stealing a different kind of mystery.

This is the Engraver, played by Barney himself. His etchings seem to industrialise the wild places, recreating them in hard, dead metallic form - the film is being shown alongside its director's metal sculptures and etchings in London. Two of those sculptures appear here, great metal tree-things, challenging the natural order of things.

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Diana the avenger is embodied by Anette Wachter, a sharpshooter known as 30CalGal who herein also demonstrates an impressive capacity for abseiling and the mechanics of dance. She's accompanied by two professional dancers, playing her nymphs, who take on the more challenging bodywork, some of it high up in a hammock strung between pines. Though never naked, they look as if they might easily freeze during their bathing scene in thin costumes, and one hopes the crew had a heater nearby. Their performances in six sequential hunts see them dart across the snowy landscape like naturally camouflaged wild animals, hunting on the ground whilst Diana watches from above. The goddess is also aided by wolves and the film doesn't always take itself too seriously - in one scene the wolves break into the trailer where the Engraver gets his work electroplated and have tremendous fun taking it apart like curious puppies.

The film is slow-moving as anyone familiar with Barney's work would expect, but very different in tone from his previous pieces, with no reliance on provoking its audience. The athleticism on display is often awesome to watch and crisp photography gives the landscape a haunting beauty enhanced by Jonathan Bepler's score. The occasional presence of a Native hoop dancer reminds us that there are other rituals and histories attached to these mountains so that Barney seems to be making an active effort to avoid cultural intrusion and is perhaps looking instead for the supposedly ubiquitous Campbellian goddess of the wilds, known by many names. There is also a sense of hunting itself being worshipped as part of the US obsession with guns and demonstrations of power - though it's probably worth noting that all the hunts here were staged. No animals were harmed unless some poor wolf got a stomach ache from eating too much cushion-filling.

The trouble with this film, at least from a cinematic perspective, is that it doesn't really grip. It's alluring, it's beguiling, but like Diana herself, it has no intention of going any further. This may work well in the context of an exhibition but most people will find it hard to sit through for two and a quarter hours. Beyond all that ravishing beauty it doesn't have very much to say. Watch it a chapter at a time and you'll appreciate it a lot more - but do try to see it on as large a screen as you can.

Reviewed on: 28 Nov 2019
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The goddess Diana is reimagined as a sharpshooter pursuing an engraver through the snowy wilderness of the Sawtooth mountains.

Director: Matthew Barney

Writer: Matthew Barney

Starring: Anette Wachter, Matthew Barney, Eleanor Bauer, Laura Stokes, KJ Holms, Sandra Lamouche

Year: 2019

Runtime: 134 minutes

Country: US


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