9 Songs: Bold Erotic Tale from Michael Winterbottom

Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs is a bold experiment in structuring a film around sex and music.

Audacious and explicit, with various sexual activities performed in real time, rather than simulated, it’s a film that will sharply divide critics and audiences. The daring combination of actual sex and great rock music will win “9 Songs,” a small clique of devoted followers.

I saw the film at the Cannes Festival last year, in a packed screening for distributors, at the Market. Few critics were allowed into the market screenings, which immediately made “9 Songs” one of the festival’s hottest items. After an hour or so of watching the two attractive protagonists, Margo Stilley and Kieran O’Brien, engage in sex, only to take short breaks for attending a rock concert or for food, I realized that, despite its boldness, the kind of which will never be seen in an American film, “9 Songs” doesn’t really work as exciting cinema.

In fact, the film gets progressively boring and pretentious too, since it has a layer of Proustian philosophy, sort of remembrances of things past. Consider Matt’s observation: “When I remember Lisa, I don’t think about her clothes, or her work, where she was from, or even what she said. I think of her smell. Her taste. Her skin touching mine.” But this observation is not placed in an interesting context to bear any meaning.

No one is credited for a screenplay because there is no conventional narrative. Matt (O’Brien), a young glaciologist, soars across the vast, silent, icebound immensities of the South Pole as he recalls his love affair with Lisa (Stilley). The couple meets at a mobbed rock concert in a vast music hall: London’s Brixton Academy. At the end of that evening, they are in bed. Together, over a period of several months, they pursue a mutual sexual passion whose inevitable stages, which should be rather familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love, unfold in counterpoint to the nine live-concert songs of the story’s title.

Winterbottom is one of the most versatile and fast-working directors in cinema today. He has made in less than a decade about 10 films, such as the literary adaptation “Jude,” the timely political melodrama, “Welcome to Sarajevo,” and the music film, “24 Hour Party People.” (See Interview with Winterbottom)

Incidental music heard over various radios and CD players throughout the film include an extended disco version of Madan, by Salif Keith, and a pair of piano nocturnes, Sola and Platform, played by Melissa Parmenter. The nine concert songs are, in order of their appearance: Whatever Happened to Rock n’ Roll, by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; C’mon, C’mon by the Von Bondies; Fallen Angel, by Elbow; Moving On Up, by Primal Scream; You Were the Last High, by the Dandy Warhols; Slow Life, by the Super Furry Animals; Jacqueline, by Franz Ferdinand; Nadia, from the 60th birthday concert of Michael Nyman; and, finally, bringing the story full circleLove Burns, once again by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

While some of the songs directly comment on the affair as it progresses, others act strictly as a trigger to Matt’s memories of Lisa, as he later studies ice sheets. At first, they are consumed with each other as lovers. Then, with time, a more complex emotional and psychological dynamic emerges, though it’s only hinted about.

One of the film’s novel points is its gender reversal: Even in the most intimate moments of the affair, it’s Lisa who gives the orders, with Matt blissfully complying. They meet strictly as his place, which presumably presents no problem. It’s also Matt who keeps bringing the word “love” into the conversation, to which Lisa responds warmly, but just as happily wriggles free of it.

Matt and Lisa are screen characters with no background, past, or history. As viewers, we learn nothing about Lisa’s work or past, except that she is American and has had passionate affairs since her adolescence. By contrast Matt, whose arctic career is a running motif, is a comparatively open book as a person. His love for Lisa and music is rather simple, at least simpler than Lisa’s.

What they share together is carnal knowledge and passion for sex, which is revealed repeatedly and graphically with uncompromising frankness. “Forget who you are,” Matt tells her, blindfolding her in a rare moment of seizing the initiative. “Forget where you are.” Yet even as he guides her through this little bit of kinky fantasy, Lisa takes over, and Matt lets her, based on his recognition that “She was 21. Beautiful. Egotistical. Careless. Crazy.” As the duo move deeper into their respective fantasy lives, they are also moving farther apart.

The Antarctic, as described by Matt, may be the one comfortable place on earth from which to remember her: “The Antarctic is the planet’s memory. Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia in one place–like two people in a bed.” And yet, there is all that music, a goad to sense-memory, as mobile and abiding as the ice cap itself.

Winterbottom was filming a concert scene for his 2002 movie, 24 Hour Party People, when the idea for 9 Songs came to him. That film’s writer, Paul Morley, and he were wondering at how completely they had recreated a scene from their common memories. Winterbottom then proposed, Why not do a whole film devoted to the “concert of memory”–to the interaction between a season of music and the most intimate nostalgia of one couple.

Winterbottom was eager to work free of conventional narrative structures, to make a film whose tensions and forward drive are entirely dependent on the unique “reality” created by a pair of lovers. In the press notes, he claims: “Cinema has been extremely conservative and prudish. If you film actors eating a meal, the food is real. Audiences know that, yet when it comes to sex they know it’s pretend. If sex is indicated at all, everyone knows it is fake.” This led him to make the sex in “9 Songs” real.

The inspiration came from Michel Houellebecq’s novel, “Platform,” “a great book, full of explicit sex. Winterbottom says he tried to acquire the rights, only to learn that Houellebecq was already planning to film it himself. So he decided to create a story that was altogether new. The result is an innovative but ultimately unsatisfying movie.