9 Songs Review
Matt (Kieran O’Brien), a geologist, remembers an affair with Lisa (Margot Stilley), an American in London. We see that affair as a series of sexual encounters alternating with footage from gigs that the couple attended.
In the light of the controversy that has attached to 9 Songs since its premiere at Cannes last year, I simply have to say that anyone who can’t tell the difference between this film and hardcore pornography needs to get out more. Onscreen unsimulated sex in non-porno films is nothing new. It first appeared in the 1968 Swedish film They Call Us Misfits and it’s a trend that includes such films as W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971 – documentary footage, passed uncut by the BBFC at the time), Empire of the Senses (1976, though not passed by the BBFC until 1991), Devil in the Flesh (1986, never commercially released in the UK) and more recently several films from the Continent notably including Catherine Breillat’s Romance. The difference of course is that, with the only precedents of the fellatio scenes in Intimacy and the as-yet-unreleased The Brown Bunny, the unsimulated sex is in a film with its dialogue in English.
9 Songs is a tiny-budget, narratively experimental film shot on digital video. Its structure, alternating “relationship” scenes (with a significant amount of before and/or after conversation) with concert footage, distils this affair into a series of significant moments, remembered by Matt from his new job in Antarctica. We are left to infer the bits in between, such as the couple’s first meeting and their leavetaking. Self-imposed formal restrictions like this (compare it with the five-scenes-in-reverse-chronology structure of François Ozon’s new film 5 x 2) can be creatively stimulating as it leaves supposedly important material, the bits in between, to our imagination. The downside is that we don’t know much about Matt and Lisa except what we see and hear and see on screen in necessarily limited contexts, but they are believable enough. 9 Songs is a demonstration of the craft of the editors (Mat Whitecross and Winterbottom), who tightly control the film’s pace: it increases in momentum, and explicitness, as it progresses. There are in fact only a few minutes of onscreen hardcore in the entire film.
The musical interludes were mostly filmed at the Brixton Academy and feature performances from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Von Bondies, Elbow, Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream, The Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals and Michael Nyman at his sixtieth birthday concert. This is all well filmed, though its success will obviously depend on your taste for loud guitar-based rock music, the Nyman apart. My main quibble with this is that the music is so “now” that it’s in danger of dating faster than the rest of the film.
9 Songs is Michael Winterbottom’s eleventh cinema feature in the decade since his big-screen debut since 1995’s Butterfly Kiss. He’s proved himself a consistently interesting director, more European in sensibility than many of his compatriots, wide-ranging in style and genre, and with an admirable bent for risktaking. Inevitably not all of his films work (I Want You particularly not) and I’d rate his two best as Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People. 9 Songs comes in the middle, as a brave attempt that doesn’t completely come off. It has its flaws, notably the overstressed symbolism of the Antarctic sequences. Some may also take issue with the fact that Lisa is a male construct (remembered by a man in a film written and directed by another man) rather than an autonomous character, though that is something explicitly foregrounded by the film’s narrative structure. But it’s a worthwhile film, commendably short, and worth a look for arthouse aficionados and Winterbottom’s admirers. You may wonder what he’ll do next, but actually we know that: an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s supposedly unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy.