9 Songs Movie Review
What made the film's Cannes premiere and early 2005 release in England such scandal fodder, of course, is not the film's story or structure, but how Winterbottom went about the scenes with Matt and Lisa. That is, he filmed the actors actually engaging in intercourse, no fakery involved, and presents it in a straightforward manner, without the cutaways, montages, effortless orgasms, gymnastic posing and musical backdrops that comprise the average film's sexual content. If the film were more salacious and leering in approach, one could just call it pornography and be done with it. And given how little attempt Winterbottom's script (if one can call these few wisps of dialogue and few sentences of narration a script) makes to cast some meaning around Matt and Lisa's relationship, it would be pretty easy to say that this is just a porn in arthouse trimmings, with the concerts there for hipster cred, in the manner of magazines that mix punk pin-up girl pics with musician interviews as a way of updating the Playboy formula.
But while it's obvious that Winterbottom's desire to make the film came not so much from wanting to tell its fairly mundane story but to simply try and break a few taboos (that is, why are films still consistently so much more prudish on the issue of sex than on violence?), that doesn't mean there's nothing else on display here. For one, even with all the natural light and grainy handheld video, this is a frequently gorgeous piece of film. Also, the concerts themselves - mostly alt-rock, from the previously mentioned Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to the Von Bondies and The Dandy Warhols, with an exceptional piano performance by film composer Michael Nyman - have an exciting rawness to them so rarely seen in these over-produced times. Most importantly, though, the scenes between Matt and Lisa are markedly lacking in pornographic conventions, the camera more accidental observer than desperately intrusive voyeur. The result is that the sex isn't so bloody serious and mechanical, with the performers actually seeming to enjoy themselves, a strangely rare thing.
While 9 Songs may be an impressively honest and refreshing work, though, it's not the most engaging. The framing device is clumsy at best, with Matt a glaciologist who ruminates on Lisa afterwards while doing research in Antarctica - comparisons between glaciers and human relationships being a tricky thing in the best of hands. And while Winterbottom certainly found himself a pair of game actors, they don't demand one's attention, though Stilley has an attractive, Maggie Gyllenhaal-esque gangliness, as well as a certain mad young American egomania that plays well off O'Brien's stolid Britishness. There's some hints given as to what happens between the two of them when their not having it off or going to shows - with Lisa refusing to bring Matt around to see her friends, and seeming to need to create a certain amount of artificial drama - but barley enough to justify a short, let alone an entire feature. But taboo busting can make up for a lot, so even if this is simply a bare-bones love story emphasizing the naughty bits, for many that may be enough.
There are definitely many better directors than Michael Winterbottom working in the cinema right now, but what's sure (given the examples of such disparate works like The Claim and 24 Hour Party People) is that there are few who are more worthy. That said, 9 Songs may really just have been about screwing around, both physically and artistically - otherwise, would it really have been necessary to make the running time exactly 69 minutes?
Aka Nine Songs.