9 Songs (18)

Sex and the ditties
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The Independent Culture

You will probably have heard that 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit film ever released in mainstream British cinema. In this regard it surpasses Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (2001), which was the last film to go the whole hog, as it were, in depicting unsimulated sex between two actors. Its notoriety blazed across the newspapers, but within weeks no one could remember a thing about it. It does not require a crystal ball to predict a similar fate for this film.

You will probably have heard that 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit film ever released in mainstream British cinema. In this regard it surpasses Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy (2001), which was the last film to go the whole hog, as it were, in depicting unsimulated sex between two actors. Its notoriety blazed across the newspapers, but within weeks no one could remember a thing about it. It does not require a crystal ball to predict a similar fate for this film.

The pity is that this may be the first Michael Winterbottom film that a lot of people will queue for. I fear that, once seen, it may also be the last. This is a director who has tried his hand at nearly every movie genre and, whether the results have been good ( In This World), bad ( Code 46) or wildly overrated ( 24 Hour Party People), he has at least been consistent in his daring.

9 Songs aims to trace the arc of a couple's relationship through their sexual encounters. This is bold, and, as it turns out, doomed: sex is what lights their fire, but its effect may prove less than incendiary for an audience.

The story is simply told. Matt (Kieran O'Brien) meets Lisa (Margot Stilley) at a gig at Brixton Academy, and they begin an affair. He's small, dark, brooding, and she's willowy, self-absorbed, American and rather forgettable. These are Matt's first words about her: "When I remember Lisa I don't think about her clothes, or her work, or where she was from, or even what she said." Not the most promising character introduction, though it's hard to decide if Winterbottom intends her to be this bland or if Stilley (a model by profession) has been unable to impose herself on the role.

In between going to concerts - the nine songs of the title are performed by, inter alia, The Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand, Goldfrapp and Super Furry Animals - they snort a few lines of coke, dance around his flat, and bicker a little. But, mostly, they have sex, in prolonged and rapturous close-up.

The frisson of "actual" sex on screen will not shock anyone who's seen a porn film, and, unlike Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox in Intimacy, O'Brien and Stilley aren't sufficiently well-known as actors to excite our prurience. But the problem of context remains. In pornography, the real and the make-believe rub along quite contentedly: the daft non sequiturs of the plots are decoration to the bare documenting of the sex, and it is important that those bodies actually did what you see them doing.

In mainstream drama, however, the documentary element is disruptive; bare a breast and you may get away with it, but throw in an erection and your audience's concentration is lost. The thin gauze of willed disbelief won't hold against it.

This is not to say a drama collapses every time someone gets laid. We can all think of movies that thrive on sex, or become memorable through it. But there are very few good ones that absolutely depend on it.

When Bertolucci made Last Tango in Paris in 1972, it was almost a revolutionary idea that sex could be portrayed as an expression of rage, or grief, or estrangement, and Brando, in his last great phase as an actor, seemed to wrench all those moods out of his own soul. It hardly needs saying that Kieran O'Brien (who was amiable enough in the BBC3 drama Burn It) has no such resources, and the only part of his performance that rises to the occasion, as it were, is the very thing that throws us off the movie.

Nor is the skimpy character that Winterbottom has written for him remotely helpful. Matt, we learn, is a geologist exploring the Antarctic, and, as a plane soars above the majestic ice-fields, we are invited to ponder his thoughts in voiceover: "Claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place... like two people in a bed." Later, in a concert hall, he reflects: "Five thousand people in a room and you can still feel alone." I'm not sure if this is Winterbottom's own banality or his projection of it on to a character. Either way, you can't help groaning.

As for the nine songs, I'm puzzled as to what their point might be. The concert footage, shot, like the rest of the film, on digital video, has a certain raucous immediacy, yet none of it appears to illuminate the story, or provide a link between one sequence and another. Given how closely Winterbottom typically attends to his choice of music, this is disappointing.

But you have to consider what little content there is in the first place. Why should we be interested in these people? Sex has brought them together, but one detects barely anything that could keep them that way. I wonder if this is the film's secret meaning, that what we call "romance" sometimes constitutes no more than a timely physical connection, hips that pass in the night. Thank Michael Winterbottom for the observation, if you like, but avoid this empty-headed movie.

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