9 Songs

(Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2004)


Some films that incite censorship controversies, such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or Romance (1999), are equally interesting as works of art and as case studies.

And this is just as well, since it is hard for even the most devoted anti-censorship campaigner to maintain enthusiasm for films that merely 'challenge taboos' while failing to arouse interest on other levels.

Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs is a borderline case. No reasonable person can doubt the seriousness and integrity of Winterbottom's attempt to put cinema (as he puts it) on the same level as literature when it comes to dealing with sexuality – a process which, in this case, entails unsimulated sex scenes. Whether he has succeeded in making a film of novelistic complexity is another matter entirely.

Shot with a tiny cast and crew, using digital technology, 9 Songs explores the intense sexual component of a brief encounter. Matt (Kieran O'Brien), a Londoner, and Lisa (Margo Stilley), an American student, meet at a rock concert. From there, this brief film (sixty-nine minutes – rarely in cinema history can a running-time also function as a gag) alternates sex acts and bands performing songs (also unsimulated). It helps if you are a fan of The Dandy Warhols, The Von Bondies or Michael Nyman (pick the odd one out in that list).

9 Songs is a far cry from pornography, but Winterbottom finds himself facing the problems that every erotic filmmaker, from the most philosophically-minded to the trashiest, inevitably encounters. Can simply showing us the physical movements of sex give us a sense of how it really feels? Winterbottom's burden here is greater than the average pornographer's, since he clearly does want his film to be a kind of X-ray of emotional and psychological states.

Although there is little to distract from this intimate exploration, Winterbottom falls prey to various traps. For the sake of variety, he presents us with a predictable spread of sexual positions and practices, including a little mild bondage. Compelled to give some kind of 'story arc' to this parade, he indulges in facile mood-association – such as a weak scene in which Matt watches, excluded and melancholic, as Lisa masturbates; or the tiresome framing device of Matt, after the event, in a landscape of ice.

9 Songs does have some powerful moments, and its deliberate aesthetic rawness is well-judged. But it is, ultimately, the non-sexual moments of conversation and frolicking that let the film down and leave the actors sometimes idly floundering in their improvisations.

Paradoxically, Stilley and O'Brien look most at ease when they are having sex for the camera – although even this artiest of art films cannot escape the banality of having its temporary-lovers cry out things like: "Now! Fuck me! Faster!" What Diderot called the 'paradox of the actor' reasserts itself even in the midst of such frenetic non-simulation: when they orgasm (at the director's request), are they feeling it, exaggerating it, or faking it? We will never know here, just as ('money shot' excluded) we can never know in any porno film.

MORE Winterbottom: Code 46

© Adrian Martin May 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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