Michael Winterbottom's latest experiment "9 Songs" mixes live concert footage with real sex. Already a scandal as "the most explicit film in British film history," it luxuriates in stolen moments of intimacy between Lisa, a young American (Margo Stilley) and Matt, an English glaciologist (Kieran O'Brien.)
Previous attempts at incorporating unsimulated sex into fictional film (such as Catherine Breillat's "Romance") have been largely unsuccessful, coming off as exploitative and voyeuristic. But "9 Songs" is not just daring but also honest. Shot with a minimal crew, handheld camera, and an improvised script, the sex is a necessary way to get closer to the characters.
Margo Stilley and Kieran O'Brien in "9 Songs"
At first, Winterbottom's storytelling seems elliptical: is "9 Songs" assembled from all the scenes that other filmmakers are happy to leave out? Moments that another film would focus on-the couple's conflicting holiday plans, Matt's trips to Antarctica, and Lisa's brief time in England--are briefly sketched and passed over in favor of more sex and more rock'n roll.
Ah, the rock'n roll: bands like Franz Ferdinand, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Primal Scream play their hearts out in venues around London while Matt and Lisa blend into the crowd. The music has an unpolished edge that feels vibrant and dangerous. The crowded nights spent under flashing lights and deafening noise are an essential part of Matt and Lisa's history, and the music is crucial to the film's texture.
By the end, it's clear that "9 Songs" is a story that can't be told without radical frankness. The couple's story-the passion, the power-plays, the disenchantment, all of their best and worst moments together--happens in bed. For "9 Songs" to work, the sex has to be as real as the moments that come after: "I need to take a shower," Want some coffee?" and some loose, naked dancing. Nothing is gratuitous because what's on screen is
the story, a story of lust, longing, and disappointment so intimate that it couldn't be told any other way.
In the current cultural climate, the film is almost certain to get grief for its uncompromising openness, but "9 Songs" deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of cinema. The onscreen ejaculations might be more than mainstream audiences are comfortable with, but Winterbottom's intentions are pure.