Since its premiere at Cannes in May 2004, Michael Winterbottom’s twelfth film 9 Songs has been the subject of much heated media debate about its sexually explicit content. With scenes depicting hardcore, unsimulated sex (including full penetration and fellatio) accounting for a sizeable chunk of9 Songs’ 69 minutes screen time, its delayed arrival on British screens will no doubt have the nation’s moral guardians up in arms again, accusing the British Board of Film Classification of sanctioning pornography and setting a dangerous precedent by granting Winterbottom’s film an 18 certificate.
The film opens as far away from an inviting bedroom as you could imagine – in Antarctica, where the voiceover of Matt (O’Brien), an English adventurer, cues a flashback that transports the action to London . He tells of his first date with Lisa (Stilley), an American student, at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig at the Brixton Academy. The band’s performance of ‘Whatever Happened To My Rock And Roll’ is the first of the film’s nine live songs (by other contemporary outfits such as Elbow, The Von Blondies and Franz Ferdinand) that sandwich Lisa and Matt’s intensely sexual year-long affair.
If the content of 9 Songs sparks accusation, detractors will also claim that the context of the offending material furthers their argument. Like any self-respecting porno, the film has no real story to speak of, offers little emotional hook and conveys no tangible sense of character. However, for the most part it also does much more than simply document the fact of sexual relations. Shooting on handheld DV, Winterbottom opts for a heightened, grainy realism that distinguished Wonderland(1999), 24 Hour Party People (2002) and In This World (2002) and rejects mainstream porn’s overt staginess. Often the camera is as intimate with Lisa and Matt as they are with each other, getting so close to its subjects as to initially render their body parts unrecognisable. At other times it adopts a more observational position – one memorable scene has the couple lying silently at either end of the bath as Lisa arouses Matt with her feet. In unity with the aesthetic, Lisa and Matt make love naturally, not performing one exaggerated f**k after another in a range of inventive positions but exploring each other’s bodies inquisitively, hungrily, generously, in a way that real lovers might. Even Lisa’s frequent commands of “F**k me”, “Harder”, “Faster” or “Come inside me” – exclamations usually made for the punter’s benefit – express a genuine thirst for Matt’s satisfaction.
With no prior experience of “performing” for cameras, both Stilley (a former model and first time actor) and O’Brien (who worked with Winterbottom on 24 Hour Party People) are remarkably uninhibited and utterly convincing – but only as lovers. In the film’s few and fleeting dramatic scenes their partnership strikes a dud note, mainly because there is precious little drama for them to get their teeth stuck into (Winterbottom shot the film with no script whatsoever). Apart from one or two moments of intrigue, particularly when Matt watches Lisa masturbating with a vibrator, their non-sexual scenes – the odd squabble, declarations of love, a bit of verbal foreplay – seem like inconsequential filler: an unsatisfactory, even lazy solution to the problem that a film full of sex is not a viable cinematic venture.
The same criticism might be made about the film’s live performances, which break up the hot stuff abruptly with extreme changes in pace and atmosphere. The concerts are recorded by three mobile cameras in the scrum of packed auditoria (we often catch glimpses of Lisa and Matt among anonymous giggers), so we are encouraged to view them from the couple’s perspective, as very much part of their shared experience. Thus music in 9 Songs serves one its chief purposes of providing a soundtrack to personal history – for Lisa and Matt it will conjure the memories and sensations of their year together in the exact and uncanny way that only music can.
In the film’s later stages the songs reflect the narrative more directly. The penultimate performance by Michael Nyman (whose music complemented the brazen beauty of Wonderland so effectively) plays like a melancholic requiem for the couple’s fading romance, while the Black Rebel’s final encore speaks poignantly for Matt, who is now watching alone after Lisa’s return to New York : “Now she’s gone and love burns inside me”. One senses that it is the end of something quite profound, but remains unmoved and not entirely satisfied. If 9 Songs is a difficult film to warm to instinctually, then that’s the price it pays for experimenting with form so impulsively and pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable so audaciously.