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9 SONGS (NR) (2004)

Tartan Films

Official Site

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Producers: Andrew Eaton, Michael Winterbottom

Written by: Michael Winterbottom

Cast: Kieran O’Brien, Margo Stilley


Goofy but sweet, 9 Songs is a worthy idea for a student film (undergraduate, first two years only) that somehow wound up getting serious attention from one of the UK’s only important directors. Even though it’s full of painful symbolic overstatement, you can’t help but cheer a little for a film that wants to remove the stigma from sex, a sentiment expressed by actress Stilley in interviews: “I wanted to make a film about something I really believe in, which is to show sex in a very positive light, as a very important piece of everyday life and a very important piece of a relationship, whether it’s successful or unsuccessful. What I find in films I see is that sex is always a turning point in action, someone’s cheating on someone, or someone dies. It’s always the kids having sex in horror films that die. And I didn’t like that.” Well, good for her and everyone involved, but this will still probably survive, at best, as a curio on the level of dated ’60s artifact I Am Curious (Yellow): well-meaning but kind of stupid.

Composed almost entirely of sex, indie rock, and Antarctica, 9 Songs has a traditional romantic arc: initial attraction blossoming into giggly love and infatuation, then into a couple increasingly comfortable with one another. One party becomes disenchanted, leading to friction, and while they try an increasing number of things to keep the relationship going, they’re incapable. Eventually, one party withdraws, leaving the other to lick wounds. It’s just that, instead of expressing these sentiments through dialogue and/or characterization, we get lots of sex (its unsimulated nature being the film’s main selling point, but anyone inured to porn would be hard-pressed to say what the big deal is. First, rather vanilla positions, followed by increasing levels of experimentation with bondage and S&M (all rather snicker-worthy: Stilley sounds like an unconvincing porn star when she flatly says “Fuck me”). The turning point comes when O’Brien, while preparing an elaborate dinner for two, walks into the bedroom to tell Stilley and sees her pleasuring herself to orgasm with a vibrator. This equals loss of intimacy, and O’Brien looks pained, though it’s not clear if he’s supposed to see this as a sign not meant for his eyes that he’s less desirable, or if Stilley is being rampagingly aggressive and dismissive of his attractiveness. They try more sexual tricks, then have frantic, passionate make-up sex toward the end, and then it’s over.

In-between the mostly undistinguished couplings, bands that are mostly popular in the UK pop up. Winterbottom adopts an undistinguished, shaky video from-the-crowd perspective, but the sound is solid. Only three of the nine bands are identified, though, so if you’re not the kind of music geek who cares about bands like Primal Scream and Elbow, prepare to be confused. What’s mostly learned from these segments is that a lot of UK bands put on the same boring light shows and wear the same would-be flamboyant dress. Still, fans should get a kick out of seeing prime Franz Ferdinand and Dandy Warhols turns (even with Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s insufferable preening in the latter). The manically prolific Winterbottom doesn’t relate the songs’ contents to the movie’s broader concerns, aside from four instances: the stupidly obvious use of the Warhols’ heartbreak opus “You Were The Last High” is shown just before the first signs of strain in the relationship; using Elbow’s “Whisper Grass” as background for a sex scene during a troubled phase of the relationship and getting extra mileage out of the spurned singer’s reference to his beloved’s sex toys with the stinger “I pray you always need them”; transferring Michael Nyman’s elegiac background piano music from buried in the soundtrack to a live performance late in the film (indicating that once your subtextual troubles become foreground, you’re screwed); and using the final performance by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (the mediocrities who inexplicably bookend the film), “Love Burns,” to lose a now alone and dejected O’Brien in the crowd, thereby (a-ha!) subsuming his individual woe and heartbreak into the collective story of love’s demise.

In between the sex and indie rock, we see O’Brien in Antarctica, giving us lots of So Obvious It’s Not Even Symbolic dialogue, like this gem about living on the continent: “Claustrophobia and agoraphobia are in the same place—like two people in a bed.” Oooh! There’s also brief snippets of the couple not actually fucking/rocking, and these fare better, like their lazy evening in O’Brien’s flat, doing coke and showing each other various dance styles (O’Brien’s mocking embodiment of the at-rave dancing of the British male is spot-on); they’re convincingly cute together.

Despite how easy the film is to mock, it’s hard not to like—someone had the good sense of humor to edit it down to 69 minutes, and it barely has time to grate before fading out. The sex scenes are good-natured, if rarely as arousing as you’d wish, and anything that makes people feel less guilty about sex is a good thing. Meanwhile, enough of the songs played to my indie rock roots to keep me entertained, and the whole thing is generally sweet-tempered. The problem is that Winterbottom sincerely believes the film’s use of Sex instead of Dialogue will throw people off, so he makes everything as blindingly obvious as possible; still, this is probably as good as this kind of movie could be.

—Vadim Rizov

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