The only thing that's certain about Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs" is that nobody will be counting melodies to ensure they haven't been shortchanged in the music department. It's what goes on between the songs that is going to be the focus of audience attention.
Structured as a young man's memory of a recently concluded love affair, "9 Songs" is the most sexually explicit theatrical feature a mainstream director has ever made. Hard-core carnal acts that couldn't be more graphic if they featured Jenna Jameson alternate with concert footage in such a deterministic way that it's likely the film's 69-minute running time was not arrived at by accident. And all from a director known for such earnest fare as "Welcome to Sarajevo" and "In This World."
Yet for all its ballyhooed candor about sexual matters, it's a surprisingly baffling and opaque film, too artistic to be standard pornography and too zealously focused on being graphic to the exclusion of all else to succeed as drama. Despite the considerable intrinsic interest in its subject matter, "9 Songs" ends up in a tedious no-man's land, devoting itself to the most distant and uninvolving raw sex imaginable. There is simply too much space between what interests Winterbottom and what involves an audience, and there's a huge gap as well between what the director thinks he's accomplished and what is actually on the screen.
As anyone who's seen his films knows, Winterbottom is the opposite of frivolous. He's somber and sincere to a fault, and his intention here, as in many of his films, is to be gruelingly lifelike. "I like making films as real as possible," the director explains in the press material. "Cinema has been extremely conservative and prudish.... If sex is indicated at all, everyone knows it is fake. So I started thinking for '9 Songs' that we should make the sex real."
Though Winterbottom doesn't say so, this realism in sex has been a European art film trend for several years, mostly with French directors like Patrice Chereau ("Intimacy") and Catherine Breillat ("Romance"), though American Vincent Gallo did his bit for the cause with "The Brown Bunny." Winterbottom decided on a largely improvised structure. He hired two actors, the experienced Kieran O'Brien, who's been in several Winterbottom films, and a young American model living in London named Margo Stilley, who had no film experience. They enact a relationship from first kiss to last goodbye, their times in bed intercut with concert footage from top contemporary bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Dandy Warhols and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
O'Brien plays a British scientist named Matt whose area of study turns out to be the ice fields of Antarctica (don't ask), while Stilley plays a young American named Lisa whose demeanor is the opposite of icy. The two fool around in the kitchen, in the bedroom and in a large bathtub. They read erotica to each other and complete the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll trifecta by indulging in cocaine. They perform a variety of sexual acts. But they do not succeed in holding our attention.
Winterbottom insists that his film is not to be confused with pornography, and given how rigid and codified much standard porn has become, he has a point. But "9 Songs" shares something with pornography that increases its boredom factor exponentially, and that is an inability to invest even minimum reality in its people. In fact, Winterbottom has made choices that make Matt and Lisa the most boring hot couple imaginable.
It starts with hiring a nonactress for a costarring role. Granted, Oscar-winning performers were probably not lining up to have graphic sex on screen. But that situation was exacerbated by a director under the misguided notion that, hundreds of years of theatrical history to the contrary, not being able to act can be a plus. "Actors can be really jaded," he told one reporter. "And it's hard to get past that. I wanted something that was raw and natural."
While pornography might get away with this, "9 Songs," which wants to be taken seriously, cannot. It also cannot get away with the minimal time allotted to showing the characters doing anything besides having sex, or with the feeble and terminally listless nature of the improvised dialogue they grapple with when they're not in bed. It gets so bad you end up rooting for the sex to end and the music to begin. Interesting experiment though it may be, "9 Songs" fails as a film because instead of fetishizing sex it has fetishized reality. Which is not necessarily a better choice.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Hard-core sexually explicit sequences
Released by Tartan Films. Director Michael Winterbottom. Producer Andrew Eaton. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. Editors Mat Whitecross, Michael Winterbottom.
Running time: 1 hour, 9 minutes.
In selected theaters.