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9 songs

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Film writers often get asked what they think about full-on explicit sex in the movies. My response is like Gandhi's apocryphal reply to the same question about western civilisation: "That sounds like an interesting plan." We behave as if sex is everywhere in popular culture, but despite the ketchupy smothering of everything with a supposed sexiness, despite the speed dating, porn chic, reality TV bedrooms, desperate housewives etc etc, actual representations of ordinary, common-or-garden sex are still very uncommon. So this robust and unpretentious sex film from that extraordinarily prolific director Michael Winterbottom is outside the euphemistic mainstream.

I am relieved to report that the hardcore sex action is completely gratuitous - which, in real life, is the very best sort. It's certainly less pretentious and more cheerful than movies like, say, Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy, films which tend to surround the deed with worthy, maundering dialogue about love and sex, as if this additional material was being entered into exculpatory evidence for some putative Chatterley trial.

9 Songs is shot on low-budget digital video and it's really about nothing more, and nothing less, than two pretty young people with nice bodies having sex. Vanilla sex with a condom, that is, enlivened with a little light bedpost shackling and headscarves pressed into service as blindfolds.

Lisa (Margot Stilley) is an American student in London for the summer; Matt (Kieran O'Brien) is a research geologist whose work takes him out to the Antarctic to analyse the ice strata. He narrates the action in hindsight, gazing out over that freezing white mass, a continent unvisited by humans until the 20th century. It's a landscape that reflects both his devastation at the end of the relationship and his passionate memory of Lisa's body, not so much a new-found-land like Donne's America, but an icy enigma, a sexy-scary blank.

They meet at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club concert at the Brixton Academy in London and go back to his place for sex, setting a pattern of lovemaking and going out to gigs that repeats nine times through the film: guitar band, sex, guitar band, sex, guitar band, sex, and so on. We don't discover much about Lisa and Matt. They don't discover much about each other.

Poor, muddled Matt is quite unable to talk about his feelings for her, and the nearest he gets is sweetly running into the freezing cold sea on a pebbly British beach to prove his love. Their conversation has the uncertain, improvised aimlessness of real life, and their relationship is not developed and complicated in any traditionally scripted sense. In so much as there is a narrative arc, it traces their passionate infatuation, which becomes darker and more alienated as it shades into more ambiguous sex action. Then one of them has to say goodbye. It's not simply a case of two sweaty anonymous people shagging in a hotel room à la Last Tango in Paris or 9 Weeks. Matt and Lisa go outside in daylight. Occasionally.

So this is no great love affair; there are no big scenes of tears and laughter; breaking up and making up. Leo and Kate on the prow of the Titanic it ain't. Its very casualness, its unfinishedness and downbeat messiness give the affair the feeling of real life, which by a further paradox makes it more engaging than something more obviously dramatic. And under the grunting and grinding and slurping and spunking, Winterbottom often places a sad piano soundtrack by Michael Nyman, leading to an uncomfortable reminder that sex, youth and rapture are very, very fleeting. (Come to think of it, this film's a bit fleeting at its cutely-judged 69 minutes.) All this, and the spectacle of raunchy sex, makes 9 Songs an entertaining if melancholy experience.

Traditionally, objectors to this sort of thing airily claim that it is "boring". This is the acceptable unshockable-sophisticate alternative to condemnation on moral grounds. 9 Songs will undoubtedly have a chorus of pundits ostentatiously stifling their yawns in print. To which I can only say - boring? Gosh, really? Is that why all those male journalists in the audience were gulping and surreptitiously recrossing their legs? Because they thought it was boring?

Perhaps. Others, conversely, might affect to see in the sex infinitesimally subtle narrative stages, and also an intentional commentary on the action in the lyrics of each of the nine songs by Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols etc. It may be true. But I thought it was absorbing precisely because of the absence of artfully positioned ironies and narrative touches: it's just about going out for a good time, and then staying in for an even better time.

As for the sex itself, it has two basic stages. The sex is absolutely fantastic for Lisa and Matt and then, well, it's not so fantastic any more. Why try to complicate things? As to whether or not it is pornographic, the stakes are not quite so high with that question these days: it is pornographic in the sense that the sex act is shown on screen, complete with money shot. But it does not have the self-conscious porn sheen that arthouse directors like Lukas Moodysson and Tsai Ming-Liang are investigating: it doesn't have the porn tropes of transgression and exhibitionism. The people are too ordinary and the sex is too straightforward.

9 Songs is more like a very modest version of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, only instead of penetrating conversation there's penetrative sex. Linklater's bittersweet sequel to that film reunited the lovers and gave them more brainy and flirtatious banter, only deepened with maturity. I like to think that if Winterbottom made his own sequel, 9 More Songs, Lisa and Matt would just get down to 69 more minutes of uncomplicated, if faintly tetchy humping, complete with grey hair and love-handles, breaking off nine times to listen to Radio 2.
Date Added: 11/11/2012 by Coleman
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