Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Review - 9 Songs

Few directors can claim to be as versatile, adventurous and prolific as Michael Winterbottom. Since his feature debut in 1995 (lesbian road-movie Butterfly Kiss), Winterbottom has racked up an astonishing 12 films with a thirteenth already in post-production. These films have ranged from small-scale contemporary dramas to science-fiction, a war film, a film about the 80’s music scene in Manchester, two Thomas Hardy adaptations and a semi-documentary on the plight of Afghan refugees; and Winterbottom has consistently worked wonders with unpromising material and a small budget. 9 Songs is his most audacious experiment yet, the story of two lovers told simply through sex and music. Unfortunately, it’s also the first Winterbottom film which can be classed as a complete failure.
You’ve probably heard about 9 Songs already. After all, it is (as the poster proudly states) “The most sexually explicit film in the history of British cinema”. This is no exaggeration, 9 Songs really does leave nothing to the imagination as it documents the various sexual acts Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley) engage in. The 9 Songs of the title are provided by the likes of Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Primal Scream and (rather improbably) Michael Nyman. These bands and more perform in the gigs which the couple attend when they aren’t at home having sex.

And that’s it. No narrative, no backstory, no characterisation, just plenty of sex and music. It’s hard to know just what Winterbottom is trying to achieve with this film. There certainly is a good film to be made about a relationship built on sex, indeed there have been a number of classic films which do tackle the subject intelligently and provocatively, such as Last Tango in Paris or Ai No Corrida. But both those films benefited from strong character development and at least one superb performance (Tango is Brando’s finest hour while Eiko Matsuda is extraordinary in Nagisa Oshima’s film), and these are aspects that are sorely lacking in 9 Songs.

There is a facile attempt to give some sort of shape to 9 Songs. The film opens with O’Brien’s Matt in Antarctica thinking back to the time he spent with Stilley’s Lisa. Matt is in Antarctica because he is some sort of geologist but also because it gives him the opportunity to spout such clumsy metaphors as “Claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place - like two people in a bed”. Matt meets Lisa at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club gig and they go back to his place for sex. They then repeat this pattern for the rest of the film. Winterbottom’s approach of juxtaposing the sex scenes and the musical sequences might have worked if the songs commented on the various stages of the relationship, but they appear to be fairly random, or the connection was so tenuous that it escaped me.

But the flaws of 9 Songs’ structure are the least of the film’s problems. The main reason it doesn’t work is down to the poor performances and total lack of chemistry between the two stars. Admittedly they don’t have much to work with, as character development does not seem to rank highly on Winterbottom’s agenda, but Matt and Lisa are such a dull, irritating couple that it is impossible to care what they get up to. The two actors are unconvincing and the heavily-improvised dialogue is utterly dismal (sample conversation: “Those glasses look stupid” “I’m trying to look stupid”, “They look ugly” “I’m trying to look ugly”).

Finally, the sex itself is just much ado about nothing. Is it really worth getting worked up about the sight of two adults having consensual, safe sex? Anyone who has seen any of Catherine Breillat’s films, or Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, will not be shocked by the sight of real sex in a mainstream (i.e. non-porno) film. The only real boundary 9 Songs crosses is the sight of an onscreen ejaculation but, again, so what? What may be interesting is the line the BBFC have crossed in passing 9 Songs uncut, surely they can never again block a film on the grounds of sexual explicitness.

I’m sure Michael Winterbottom had good intentions with 9 Songs, but his experiment has turned up a dull, shapeless mess of a film which would surely have disappeared from sight completely if it wasn’t for the fuss over the sexual content. Disappointingly, that sexual content may mean more people actually want to see this than any of Winterbottom’s previous, superior films. And that’s a real shame.