What do we expect of sex on screen? That it should turn us on? Or that it should have some more abstract function, as a metaphor, or as a revealing mirror of human nature? Certainly, some agenda beyond the visible flesh is what we've seen in recent sexually explicit art films, such as Baise-Moi, Intimacy, The Pornographer and Catherine Breillat's explorations of that murky area where hardcore meets hard dialectic.
But what if screen sex were simply that - people filmed screwing, with no evident subtext? This, apparently, is what Michael Winterbottom has undertaken in 9 Songs - to make a film in which sex is just sex.
9 Songs has been called "the most sexually explicit film in the history of mainstream British cinema", and it undoubtedly is - although whether it remotely qualifies as mainstream is questionable. The film's deliberately literal view of sex, together with its narrative minimalism, makes it an unapologetically experimental work. Two people - Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley) - meet at a rock concert, spend most of the next year in bed, then go their separate ways. 9 Songs is what a screen romance would look like if it dispensed with the usual signifiers of love - the pillow talk and moony-eyed adoration - and concentrated on the sweaty bedroom action.
But the film is not so much about what people do in bed as who they are in bed. While Lisa and Matt clearly are characters - rather than flesh puppets, as in pornography, or nudes draped in discourse, as in Breillat - we know very little about them. His work involves him visiting Antarctica, where's he's sporadically seen - and heard - making crushingly banal voice-over comments: its expanses, he tells us, embody "claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place. Like two people in a bed." (Agoraphobia? How big is the bed?) She's American, a student of some sort, and takes prescription drugs. Otherwise, that clunky voice-over informs us, "She was 21, beautiful, egotistical, careless and crazy." Apart from the sex, they do some coke, visit a lapdancing club, and go to several more concerts - hence the title, and the interspersed live footage from, among others, Super Furry Animals, the Von Bondies, Primal Scream and, a little incongruously, Michael Nyman (you'd be surprised how nicely his music resonates with the gentle hum of a vibrator). That there's almost as much music as sex effectively makes 9 Songs half a concert movie, albeit a rough, bootleggy one. Of the bands, only Franz Ferdinand's theatrical swagger threatens to upstage the sex, although it's typical that Matt and Lisa contrive to miss the film's best number - Elbow's "Fallen Angels" - by snogging through it.
There are a few non-sexual dramatic moments - a snit over breakfast, a jolly walk on a beach - but they are micro-scenes at most. Essentially, 9 Songs bets us that it can make the sex stand in for all the other things that routinely convey character. In fact, the bed scenes do convey a strong sense of personality - Lisa's, at least. We know Matt very little, partly because he represents the camera's point of view as he marvels at Lisa (we're undoubtedly given an infatuated male view of female sexuality), and partly, I suspect, because O'Brien, the professional actor of the two, is acting - undemonstratively and with tough reserve, but acting nonetheless. Stilley, on the other hand, perhaps because she's new to film, seems excited to be venturing into unfamiliar territory. She has a vibrant physical presence, and not only in the sex scenes. There's a droll, sometimes arch gawkiness about her, especially in her odd untrained sing-song delivery, Southern-accented with an occasional brattish whine (her first line is, "Oh baby, pay attention to me"). But she's extremely charismatic, and it'll be interesting to see where Stilley goes next.
For both actors, much of the performing involves having realistic sex, complete with those supposedly unimpeachable marks of authenticity - the ejaculation, the fully visible penetration, O'Brien's sustained and alarmingly substantial erection and, of course, the fuzzy digital photography. But these physical factors don't mean that the pair are not acting. We can't, after all, gauge the actual status of the pleasure on display: Stilley may moan with delight while O'Brien is inside her, but is the actress's apparent pleasure to be confused with the character's, or a skilful put-on for the camera? Is it Lisa or Stilley who we see at one point with tears in her eyes? It's hard to determine what we're seeing, even when it appears we couldn't be more certain about what we're seeing. That makes 9 Songs - ostensibly just a film about sex - a rather challenging essay on the thorny question of the real on screen, how it's filmed and how it's perceived.
For all the hardcore anatomy, the film's distinguishing feature is a softcore tenderness - proving it doesn't take a Kenny G saxophone in the background to persuade us that two naked people really like each other.
Hence idyllic scenes such as a clinch amid dust motes dancing in the sun, or a bask in the bath, her pale and lanky like a Bonnard nude, caressing his erection with her feet. It's the mundane details that make the sex poetic: in one scene, we're aware of background noise from a nearby schoolyard.
9 Songs, it must be said, is by no means riveting from start to finish, but it's an impressive gesture in its attempt to reclaim screen sex for reality. This is a relationship stripped bare, in every sense, with no loose talk or extraneous drama to clutter things up. When Lisa leaves, she gets in a taxi and we're told nothing of how she feels. Some might see 9 Songs as under-characterised, or emotionally autistic. But what Winterbottom has given us is, you might say, a love story inverted: we see the sex, but when it comes to Lisa and Matt's inner, emotional truth, the film remains silent. In a curious reversal, you could say it's respecting their privacy.