9 Songs Review
Michael Winterbottom, the respected auteur and director of such films as Code 46 and In This World, has returned to the grainy, low-budget DV London that he shot so memorably in the lyrical, tragic, blissful Wonderland. In 9 Songs he explores a loving relationship between a young couple through the entwined metaphors of sex and music and stirred up controversy at Cannes in the process.
Matt (O’Brian), a young Londoner, works for the British Antarctic Survey and likes indie bands. Flying across the barren polar landscape, he recalls his relationship with Lisa (Stilley), a waifish American exchange student. Meeting at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig at Brixton Academy, the two fall swiftly in lust and into bed.
And that’s about it, plot-wise. They have sex and go to concerts. Beautifully filmed real-time sex scenes are interspersed with grainy handheld footage of gigs – Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals, cunnilingus, fellatio, a little bondage and blindfolds, and most memorably, scandalizing the tabloids and Ann Widdecombe, ejaculation. Winterbottom pushes the envelope in showing, for the first time in a non-pornographic film, lovingly detailed real sex between two actors.
And it’s really not pornographic. Or even erotic.
Told in flashback, from Matt’s perspective, the film objectifies Lisa. She is, in his words, “21, beautiful, egocentric, careless and crazy”. Egocentric, yes, but maybe Prozac or a lack of proper nutrition had dampened the craziness – Lisa mainly comes across as rude and brattish and frequently annoying, though Matt still falls in love with her (maybe he’s too busy shagging her to notice a little thing like personality). Maybe its because Matt never seems to find out anything about Lisa that we don’t know her at all – she moves into his world, but we never see hers. Stilley is to be commended for her courage in making the film – I wouldn’t have done it! – but her inexperience as an actress shows and her character is a curious blank.
Winterbottom’s aim in making the film was to see if a film could explore sex in the way that a book can. I think he’s proved that it can’t. A book is intimate and, in the case of erotic fiction, often written in the first person. Film cannot get inside a character’s head, so instead sex is reduced to a mechanical process with the audience on the outside, voyeurs peeping through the curtains. Erections in movies, as in life, are a good thing, but watching sex for forty minutes gets boring – sex is pretty ludicrous in its full sticky, sweaty, squelchy reality.
The film looks good, shot dogma style with DV cameras and no natural light, which adds to the documentary feel. But there is always this awareness that, yes, they’re having real sex, but they’re still performing, which makes the sex seem oddly more artificial, not less. I was especially aware of this in a scene where Lisa is having more fun with a vibrator than with Matt.
Winterbottom is to be admired for not resting on his laurels, and always challenging himself. 9 Songs is a brave experiment and not at all sleazy, but its just not all that successful as a film. The fact that the censor passed it uncut says it all really – in the end it’s pretty banal.
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