Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

9 Songs

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 28, 2005

Directed by Michael Winterbottom/starring Kieran O’Brien, Margo Stilley/Tartan Films

A British man recalls his relationship with a young American woman.

For those of you who don’t know, 9 Songs is a controversial British film from one of the most interesting directors working today, Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Claim, Code 46). What’s so controversial, you ask? Well, how about the fact that it contains hardcore sex scenes?

Got your attention? Thought so.

So the film came out in England last year, accompanied by outrage from some circles and a collective shrug from most critics. Now it’s opened in America, in what I assume will be a very limited release, given that most theater chains won’t even play NC-17 films with full frontal nudity, much less unrated films with actual sex in them. I wouldn’t expect to find it at your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video either, unless it’s a censored version. (And honestly, who wants that?) I normally wouldn’t get to see something like this in my neck of the woods, but the good folks at Tartan provided me with a screener copy. Thanks, guys!

One thing I’m not going to do here is get into the whole porn debate. I think that would be a waste of time for the readers and for me. Porn is just another form of entertainment, one that has existed for decades and will continue to exist as long as there are people who are willing to do it. That’s just the reality of the situation. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it. The same goes for this film – if the idea of watching actors actually have sex on camera turns you off, you’re probably not going to want to see this. If that’s the case, I’d recommend that you don’t. But my job is to review the film exactly as it is, which in this case is a film that contains…well, fucking. That’s what the movie is, and if you can’t deal with it, run away screaming now.

There’s not much in the way of plot in 9 Songs; it’s basically 69 minutes (hardy har har) of a guy (O’Brien) remembering what his relationship with a girl (Stilley) was like. That’s the movie. They go out and see alternative bands, including Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies, the Dandy Warhols, Primal Scream and Super Furry Animals (if you haven’t heard of any of them, well, now you have). We watch them watch the bands play, and the music is cool. They have banal conversations, argue over nothing, snort some coke and occasionally have sex.

Not that I’m any expert, but it sounds pretty much like a typical relationship to me (well, except for the coke and seeing cool bands). Which is the whole point. It’s not a cute romantic comedy or a grand romantic epic in the tradition of Doctor Zhivago. It’s a relationship in the way that most people have relationships: they meet, they hook up, they do stuff together, and it either lasts or it doesn’t. There’s none of the bullshit that happens in most movies that never happens to anyone in real life. Some people may consider that boring to watch, but I thought it was refreshing and honest.

Those of you with so-called “prurient interests” who want to watch this movie just to get off might be a little disappointed. The sex in the film is actually pretty ordinary, compared to what you can see in most porn movies out there (not that I would know anything about that…ahem). There aren’t any acrobatics or gymnastics going on here; it’s not even particularly energetic, much less rough or nasty. Again, I think that’s the whole point. I would imagine that most people don’t have the kind of sex you see in hardcore porn films, at least not often. It may be “shocking” to some people just because it’s sex, but really it seems pretty harmless. It comes off as more of a natural extension of a typical movie love scene, except Winterbottom doesn’t cut away when the intimacy starts.

9 Songs is exclusively a two-character piece, and that kind of film rises or falls on the acting. The inclusion of sexual activity would seem to make it even more of a challenge. Thankfully, O’Brien and Stilley are up to the task. They’re completely convincing as a couple, and they actually seem to enjoy each other’s company (in every possible way), unlike most porn actors who seem to have been thrown together at random (then again, a hot young female pretending that she’s really into screwing Ron Jeremy might be considered acting at its finest…). In all honesty, Stilley doesn’t really do it for me; she’s certainly not ugly, but she’s a bit too skinny and bony for my taste (rib cages don’t really turn me on). Having said that, she exudes a natural sexiness and comfort with her body (and O’Brien’s) that proves very appealing. I’ve read that she regrets having done the film, which is too bad; I wouldn’t say she’s the next Taylor Rain or anything, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of. She’s an actress, she did what the part required and did it well. It’s no more degrading than, say, working at Wal-Mart for slave wages.

I suppose the most important question concerning 9 Songs would have to be, “is it art, or is it pornography?” Well, maybe it’s a combination of both. Is that such a bad thing? It plays much more like an experimental film (albeit one where you can understand what the hell’s going on) than a skin flick designed to stimulate one’s libido. If you’re capable of adjusting your sensibilities to accept that it’s a real movie that happens to include real sex, it’s actually a very interesting film to watch as a whole. I wouldn’t say it’s a masterpiece, but it’s an intriguing, alive piece of work.

I can’t picture mainstream Hollywood adopting this approach any time in the near future (can you imagine Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock having sex on camera? Yeah, me neither. Maybe Meg Ryan…), but I think a film like this has every right to exist and to be seen by any adults that are curious enough to track it down. It’s kind of ironic that porn is a multibillion-dollar industry, yet a serious film about a sexual relationship between adults will have a hard time being seen by most of the people in this country.

Then again, you can always say you’re watching it because you like the bands in it…just like we read Playboy for the articles. Right.

***   7/28/05

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