Matthew Barney's Films are padded cells for obsessive-compulsives. Everything has an order and a place. No intricacy is overlooked, no form unplanned. His films have been accused of fascism, and its echoes, if not its intentions, are certainly there.

Known for his Cremaster cycle of five films dating back to 1996, Barney is a visual artist in the museum-gallery world. He directs and acts in his vivid, animalistic, mostly dialogue-free orgies of symbolism, using no-name actors (Norman Mailer and Richard Serra, the sculptor of enormous steel structures, are exceptions); he also displays pieces of his film sets as works of sculpture. Until now, nobody would have called Barney's films "movies."

But Drawing Restraint 9, Barney's latest effort, is a step in that direction. It's getting a wide feature-film release, predating its art-world debut this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At the museum, unlike a theater near you, helpful text panels will explain that Drawing Restraint is a performance-based project, spanning almost 20 years, that explores the idea that "form emerges through struggle against resistance"—a view drawn from Barney's early experiences as an athlete. The exhibition catalog will be in three volumes devoted to documentation of the project through performances, sculptures, and photographs.

Fighting for form could be seen as the project of Barney's whole career (not to mention the primary endeavor of such parties as sestina writers and S&M practitioners). The ostensible subject of the Cremaster cycle was sexual differentiation—the cremaster muscle is responsible for the movement of the testes—but its real preoccupation was always the creation and dissolution of regularized (albeit completely weird) activities and arrangements. One such sequence that particularly sticks in my mind is from Cremaster 1 (1996): Fetish performer Marti Domination, playing a flight attendant on a Goodyear blimp, crouches under a table and pulls grapes down through the tablecloth above her head, then organizes the grapes into patterns acted out by chorus girls on the blue AstroTurf playing field below, which happens to be Bronco Stadium in Boise, Barney's hometown.

The stupefying levels of control that Barney exerts and dramatizes—along with his utter humorlessness—are more tiresome at the local movie house, where you have to sit still through the whole thing, than in the Guggenheim auditorium, where you're free to come and go (although people will give you dirty looks). That said, the 135-minute Drawing Restraint 9 is hardly the most tedious, indulgent, or unfocused of Barney's films, and it makes structural concessions to the movie format. (Confession: I haven't seen them all, so I'm judging by the ones I've seen either whole or in part—Cremasters 1, 2, and 5.) Plus, this movie has Björk, and she, as she has repeatedly proven, can subvert just about any prescribed platform she encounters as an actor or as a musician.

Down to the plot: The two stars—lovers in real life—board a Japanese whaling ship and are outfitted for a ritualistic union in ceremonies that include the shaving of eyebrows and the blackening of teeth, and are accompanied by what sounds like atonal accordion music. Björk created the soundtrack, which evokes ship groans and the sonar sounds of sea creatures when it isn't being pleasingly abstract.

In contrast to Barney's studied stiffness, Björk chooses a naturalistic acting style, which paradoxically heightens the plot's oddities. The two take Japanese tea in an elaborate ceremony, then kiss and lick each other (this is Barney: It's gross, not erotic) as a storm hits the ship and their cabin fills with water. They flay each other's lower halves with knives, and eventually become sea creatures.

Meanwhile, up on deck, a crusty log of ambergris that has been hauled onboard after a strangely action-movieish whaling sequence is inserted into a great mold of congealing petroleum jelly—Barney's favorite nonliquid, nonsolid substance—in the shape of Barney's favorite symbol, a horizontally divided athletic-field emblem that looks like a maxi pad with squared-off wings. Deckhands yank its sides one by one, freeing the custardy goo from the restraints of its mold, and the tidy form collapses into a blobby mess. This is the money shot, the Barney equivalent of lovers closing in for an embrace as the camera pans away, and in Drawing Restraint 9, it's the closest you'll come to wanting to cheer.