Sex, drugs, and rock & roll take on a literal meaning in the controversial new film from writer/director Michael Winterbottom, ‘9 Songs.’
Winterbottom, the acclaimed English indie director behind ‘Welcome to Sarajevo,’ ‘Wonderland’ and ‘Jude’ has created a short – 69 minutes – drama as we watch a young couple’s relationship evolve, marked by rock concerts (Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand, the Dandy Warhols, etc.) as milestones and varying degrees of explicit sex. Winterbottom describes his ‘9 Songs’ as an exploration of physical and emotional intimacy. The end result is a film with a reality TV show feel to it. Like MTV’s ‘The Real World’ with explicit sex and indie film moodiness.
Kieran O’Brien, an up and coming British actor (‘Band of Brothers,’ ‘Virtual Sexuality’), stars with a relatively unknown American actress, Margo Stilley (‘Nathan Barley’), as Matt and Lisa – a couple whose relationship is centered on sex, drugs and rock & roll. Matt is a scientist whose area of expertise is the Arctic tundra while Lisa is an American exchange student enjoying a year in London.
As their relationship evolves, their respective attitudes toward sex and music change. There’s listlessness as predictable boredom sets in. But what’s most interesting about ‘9 Songs’ will be the post-screening debates about whether or not the explicit sex was really necessary to tell the story of this sometime coolly aloof couple’s mood swings. Shot in grainy digital, the actual sex acts threatens to move the film into the arena or pornography… or documentary. To be generous, ‘9 Songs’ feels more like an avant-garde film school experiment as we watch for subtle signs of how their relationship changes in between concerts. From giggly intimacy to aloof masturbation, there’s a very subtle progression that the couple isn’t meant for the long run.
O’Brien and Stilley make an attractive couple. Unfortunately, ‘9 Songs’ doesn’t feel like any potent vehicle for either of them to demonstrate acting talent. Physically, these mainstream actors didn’t have any problems performing on screen. The film deftly moves the audience past different levels of movie convention as we sail past the rating systems of any country. Male and female frontal nudity? No problem. Erection? Daring stuff. A variety of sex acts – hmmmm, getting risky. But then, there is a surprising scene of ejaculation, which takes the film to new frontiers – again, closing in on pornography.
Of course, ‘9 Songs’ could also be Winterbottom’s way of thumbing his nose at mainstream moviegoers, anxious to find respectability and reason in this explicit and plotless film. So is ‘9 Songs’ a pointless art film for film geeks to have an excuse for some porn? Some tasteful titillation? Well, to paraphrase from this summer’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ “Sex doesn't have to have a point. That's what makes it candy.”