9 Songs (2004) – movie review

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Movie Review by Dan Spiers

Starring: Kieran O’Brien, Margo Stilley
Director: Michael Winterbottom

It is difficult to avoid sex at the multiplex. Bouncing breasts, pert buttocks and orgasms abound, but as we all know it is a collage of sight and sound as opposed to the act itself. Actual sex is traditionally confined to porn, but 9 SONGS, directed by Michael Winterbottom, attempts to reclaim the images of erection, ejaculation and mutual masturbation, using them to chart the course of a loving relationship.

9 SONGS begins and ends in the Antarctic with the narration of Matt (Kieron O’Brien), a worker for the British Antarctic Survey, who reminisces about a passionate affair with an American student, Lisa (Margo Stilley). Narration segues into the birth of their relationship at a gig and ends, symbolically at least, when Matt attends a ninth and final gig alone.

The structure of the film is simple, sex and rock and roll. Though in theory an engrossing subject matter, the result is remarkably dull. There are only so many times you can hear vigorous sucking before it sounds like fingernails down a blackboard. Equally there are only so many times you can see the same couple performing sexual acts, if admittedly at slightly different angles, before you become disinterested.

The film has a documentary feel. During the musical interludes the camera stumbles through the audience to follow the movements of Matt and Lisa. The sound is poor and the footage, jolting, grainy, often spends interminable periods of time focused on a poorly lit stage and immobile performers.

The sex itself, with an erection here, a spot of cunnilingus there and a touch of S&M for good measure, is neither erotic, nor titillating. Some of the scenes are beautifully shot, in particular an early morning bout over the kitchen table with shafts of sunlight illuminating the young lovers. But this is the documentation of an affair, not tans entwined in twilight, and the result is as objective and detached as any good documentary should be.

This sense of detachment is heightened by the narrowness of the subject matter. We know little or nothing about the characters which means this focuses attention on their sexual relationship but renders that relationship virtually meaningless. What makes the experience more grating is that the only insight we get into either character is that Lisa is a whining, objectionable person. And this encourages neither empathy nor interest.

Michael Winterbottom has shown actual sex need not be pornographic, but he has also shown it can be thoroughly tedious. As ever his work is thought provoking and challenging, but in this instance he pleasures himself at the expense of the audience. 9 SONGS is an interesting exercise in movie making but, alas, not particularly enjoyable.

2 out of 6 stars