Recent films from provocateur filmmakers like Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance), Vincent Gallo (Brown Bunny), and Larry Clarke (Bully) have used real, explicitly detailed sexual acts in grotesque, unappealing ways, almost as a dare to audiences. Those filmmakers seem to be saying "Go ahead, see if you can find this erotic, you perverts!" Pretentious and showy, this burgeoning sub-genre of real sex films blurs the line between pornography and art, but doesn't pay off with anything in terms of character or drama that most audiences can connect with.
Michael Winterbottom has never seen a film genre that he didn't want to direct, from the period drama Jude to the modern strife of Welcome to Sarajevo to the high-energy rock rave-up 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom seems to be attracted to telling any kind off story as long as it has real human characters at its heart. His plan of exploring a relationship between a man and a woman (Kieran O'Brien as Matt and Margo Stilley as Lisa) without any of the usual plot and character devices in 9 Songs, however, may have backfired.
9 Songs basically consists of four types of scenes: A couple having real on-screen sex, their brief non-sex interludes, the rock concerts they attend, and the trek Matt makes through Antarctica some time later. (The film is more or less structured as Matt's memory of the relationship from his icy outpost.) The film quickly settles into an unchanging rhythm of switching between these four scenarios and what starts out as intriguing (the concerts, the sex) becomes rote, while the sequences that start out perplexingly out of place (Antarctica) become meaningless.
Winterbottom's unique approach to the sex, at least in the current cinema, is to treat it as sensual and beautiful and not ugly and offensive. In general this is hardly revelatory (only coming after films like Brown Bunny could the idea that sex is pleasant be surprising) but he does achieve a rumpled sexiness to the scenes early on that could engage the viewer. In fact, everything has a lived-in sexiness, whether it's the actors (both unmistakably real but beautiful as well) or the bed sheets or even Matt's apartment. Everything has a texture that adds to the sensuality.
Eventually, however, all the sex starts to wear out its welcome. First off, the question of whether or not someone can give a blowjob "in character" isn't one that the film answers, since the characters really are never fully fleshed out (which is odd, considering that by the end we've seen every millimeter of their skin.) The few breakfast table scenes do more to introduce us to these people than the sex scenes, and what we learn there isn't necessarily anything we haven't gotten from many other films. If Winterbottom had really had faith in his "character development through sex" concept he could have deprived us of any other context and seen if it worked.
The other major theme is the music, which includes full-song performances from Franz Ferdinand, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Elbow, The Dandy Warhols, The Von Bondies, Primal Scream, and Super Furry Animals. Most of the bands are excellent, particularly Elbow, Primal Scream and BRMC. Franz Ferdinand play "Jacqueline" with a ferocity that actually serves to point out how little momentum the film has gained on its own merits by that late point in the running time. The only act who don't really deliver is the Von Bondies, whose "C'mon C'mon" is far less explosive here than it is in the opening credits of Rescue Me.
Winterbottom shoots the concerts from a fan's perspective and at times gains an energy from the vantage point. He also seems to use crowd microphones which adds a murkiness to the recordings that makes them more live, more energetic. After all, this is a fiction film and not a concert film. It should have a point of view.
Although I like the way he captured the gigs for the most part I'm not sure I buy his reason for including them. The title 9 Songs and their spacing throughout the film seems to indicate that these selections should comment somehow on the story and on Matt and Lisa, but I never really got the sense that they did. With the exception of Franz Ferdinand's lyric "It's always better on holiday" (which seems to suggest that Lisa's interest in Matt is only temporary, even though that's not what the song is talking about at all) most of the songs just don't seem to relate to the film. It's a stretch to combine the music with the sex in anything other than a "sex, drugs and rock n' roll" sort of way, which doesn't really get you anything either. It's more likely that Winterbottom just thought it would be cool. A silly reason to structure an entire film in such an obtuse way, but then again the running time was carefully kept to 69 minutes, I guess so the Beavis and Buttheads in the audience could get at least one huh-huh. At such a short running time I almost feel like Winterbottom should have pared his work down to a short or used the extra 20-30 minutes he could easily have had to craft more of a story.
The anamorphic widescreen video has a grainy beauty to it. It seems to have been shot on DV cameras and the reduction in resolution is obvious, but careful attention was obviously paid to lighting, color and composition, and the resulting film has a burnished quality that's works well.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, both of which are great. As I mentioned, the live portions are produced in a way that replicates the live experience, so don't expect audio perfection, but at the same time this isn't sloppiness, but rather atmosphere-appropriate production. Subtitles are only available in Spanish, which I found odd given some of the quieter dialog passages.
There is an option to see the performances on their own, but the versions used are the same edits from the film, including shots of the actors, and in at least one case movie dialog over the music. That makes this feature basically useless, since the songs are accessible from the main chapter menu anyway. They should have recut the songs to include the full intros and live footage only. Even better, they should have used a feature like the one used on the Slam Nation that allowed the viewer to skip to the full performance while watching the film.
Interviews are also available with Winterbottom, Stilley and O'Brien, which actually turn out to be really interesting. Hearing Winterbottom talk about the film is almost more interesting at times than actually watching it. And the difference between the actors' interview personalities and their characters is pretty remarkable. It would be great to see them in a film together where they did more acting.
A trailer is also included as are some lame music videos from the Von Bondies ("C'mon C'mon"), The Dandy Warhols ("Smoke It" and "The Last High") and Elbow ("Forget Myself" plus a "meet the band" segment).
I want to say I admire the bravery of the actors but I'm not sure why I should. The urge to film intimate moments and break taboos dates back at least to Thomas Edison's The Kiss in 1900, and in an art film market that's cluttered with explicitly sexual films, Winterbottom hasn't added too much that's new to the genre. Still, 9 Songs isn't a disaster. It has some great atmosphere and music. But if his big idea was to make sex sexy again he might shoot for less redundant goals next time.