“Now she’s gone and love burns inside me”
Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. That pretty much epitomizes the film 9 Songs. Michael Winterbottom is a director that has never shied away from genre hopping or controversy, doing both with this explicit romance consisting of concert footage and sexual intercourse, with a little story thrown in for good measure. More an art film than anything that should be given a theatrical release, it is only 71-minutes in length, but that is enough for what is being portrayed. One can only sit through the repetition of bedroom, rock venue, bedroom, and so on for so long. Once we as an audience start to understand where these two lovers are in their respective lives, the point of the film—how love can be both wonderful and isolating at the same time—comes across, leading the story to its inevitable conclusion. It is a love affair lasting a few months while Lisa, an American, attends school in London and Matt prepares for a job studying glacial ice in Antarctica. A relationship between a young twenty-something co-ed and a thirty-something field professional, it has different meanings for both sides of the equation. No matter the results or the hardships involved, these two do love each other on some level.
Told as almost a flashback from Matt’s point of view, we see this glaciologist amongst the snow and white, feeling claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. He recalls those same feelings when with Lisa back home during their torrid sexual escapades. In love with her, without a doubt, he made the most of those months by cooking for her, pleasing her in the bedroom, and having a great time on the indie music scene, living it up in the London nightlife. Every attempt he made to see where their future was headed, however, was met with a cold attitude, alluding to the tenuousness of their bond. He wants to spend Thanksgiving with her, but she made plans with her friends of whom she assumes Matt will hate; he wants to take the step of having sex without a condom, feeling out the prospect of having children someday in the future, but she says no, she likes it this way. Throughout their entire time together, Lisa had never even invited him to her apartment.
They met at a concert and it brought them close; the film shows their affection at the start, but as it continues on, the cracks begin to widen. Whereas Matt looks to extend the relationship to something lasting, he finds Lisa’s penchant for drugs and sex to be too much. Not that he isn’t enjoying it, the two have no issues with tearing each other’s clothes off at any time of the day, even adding blindfolds and restraints to the festivities, but her need for it becomes overwhelming. I don’t know why they go to a topless bar at one point, but it is Lisa who becomes so involved and aroused by the woman gyrating on and near the couple. She becomes so enraptured that, in an economy of shots, we watch as Matt leaves her there by herself, the event becoming the final straw in his acceptance of her behavior. Soon she is found pleasing herself while Matt makes supper and making the decision to stay at home while he goes off to a concert. He was feeling completed in the great big world with his love, but when she lapsed into her drug-induced sexual stupors, he found himself closed in, whether surrounded by 5,000 people at a show or deserted at home. Without Lisa he was completely alone.
I do believe that showing these feelings that love instills in us is Winterbottom’s goal. Without a strict narrative besides Matt’s remembrances of a few months in London with a woman he loved, the film isn’t much more than an extended, NC-17 concert video. So many people will go to the trouble and say how both Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley have given brave performances, but what is really so brave? If taking off your clothes and having sex on tape is so brave, why aren’t pornstars scooping up all the Oscars for their portrayals onscreen? If anything, it’s because they are actually having sex in front of the camera that makes it less of a ‘performance’. O’Brien and Stilley do have to portray a love and affection through the good and bad times while fully clothed, but once they are in bed—which is seriously two-thirds of the movie—all acting is out the window as they partake in unsimulated sex. I’m not saying they do a bad job of acting, I did buy into their relationship, watching them fawn over each other at a concert, seeing the way they looked at each other across the dining room table, and how they enjoyed themselves roaming London towards the end. I just have a problem with people automatically praising an actor for being naked onscreen. They are getting paid and they have chosen to do it. I’m not so sure how much the word ‘gutsy’ has to do with it.
And for anyone out there who picks up 9 Songs from the shelf and think nothing of the explicit sex warnings on the cover, know that it is as advertised. If you have any prudish tendencies at all, just put the DVD down and find something else for date night. These two run the gamut of sexual activities and everything is shown. I give credit to Winterbottom for attempting to show the highs and lows of love in such a way—keeping the sexual arousal intact as the central story point, but never glamorizing it to cause titillation as a porn film would. Definitely not for everyone, nor something I would ever really want to experience again, it is a piece of art that deserves to not be tossed aside as some sex film without merit. The juxtaposition of Antarctica and the pairs’ own little island together has meaning and the cutting between the gyrations of rock ‘n roll fans watching their favorite bands play with the close-up sounds and sights of two people making love is effective. There are some really good bands on display, including Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, and Super Furry Animals, but their performances, as well as the music’s role in the story, do get overshadowed by the controversial explicitness of the rest. Love is both unparalleled in joy and pain, depending what stage you are in, but no matter where it leads, for better or worse, the parts that worked can never be forgotten.
9 Songs 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
[1 & 2] Kieran O’Brien as Matt and Margo Stilley as Lisa in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 SONGS, Tartan USA release. © 2005