Review: ‘9 Songs’

A couple in London make love, take in a rock concert, make more love, take in another rock concert, make even more love, and occasionally pause for food in Michael Winterbottom's "9 Songs." The most sexually explicit movie yet by an established, English-lingo director, pic is also a touching, often poetic, snapshot of a brief encounter.

A transatlantic couple in London make love, take in a rock concert, make more love, take in another rock concert, make even more love, and occasionally pause for food in Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs.” The most sexually explicit movie yet by an established, English-lingo director, and the first to employ unsimulated activity of almost every variation in unblinking detail, the micro-budgeted, largely improvised, DV-lensed pic is also a touching, often poetic, sometimes achingly real snapshot of a brief encounter related almost entirely through the bedroom. Pic’s ratings problems and 69-minute length, however, will prove problematic for anything beyond specialized theatrical bookings.

Unsubmitted so far to any country’s ratings board, and for many territories (especially outside Europe), a complete no-no without substantial trims, film would clearly benefit from an international fest launch prior to theatrical release (film is reportedly headed for San Sebastian). Surprisingly, Winterbottom has stated he’s not averse to some cutting, especially a full-on “money shot” near the end. But for a movie whose sex scenes are carefully calibrated, as well as being the main point, any deletions would rob it of major mojo. Critical reaction at the pic’s two market screenings in Cannes was very positive.

Film is structured as a series of remembrances of times past by Matt (Kieran O’Brien), a member of the British Antarctic Survey team, as he flies across the “continent of ice, a place where no man had been since the 20th century.” (Scenes were actually lensed in Norway.) As Matt recalls his first meeting with Lisa (newcomer Margo Stilley) at a rock gig at the Brixton Academy in south London, the first of the nine concert extracts is slowly intercut with images of the two having sex back at his apartment.

In line with the pic’s stripped-down approach, there are no dialogue scenes of their meeting. In fact, there’s precious little dialogue anywhere, and when there is, it’s mostly of a pedestrian, inconsequential nature — shards of exchanges in the bathroom, over a meal table, snuggled up in bed or riding in a car.

There’s also virtually zero backgrounding of the two characters. Though Matt’s job is clear enough (if never discussed), the most the audience ever learns about Lisa is that she’s American (though even her accent is hard to place at first), has had a wide variety of lovers from many countries, and is clearly only in the U.K. for a while. Matt simply describes her, in voiceover, as “21 — beautiful, egotistical, careless and crazy.”

During pic’s midsection, the two of them journey to the countryside, stay in a house, and Matt bathes naked in the sea. Back in London, the relationship starts to show tiny strains before they have their one and only argument; after apparently reconciling, the end is simple, pragmatic but quietly affecting.

From his very first TV movies in the early ’90s, Winterbottom has always shown a European, rather than typically Anglo-Saxon, filmmaking sensibility, and “9 Songs,” with its loose, metaphysical approach, pushes that sensibility to the extreme. Aside from its use of concert footage, film is closest in style to Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” — a kind of “24 Hour Empire of the Senses” with a poetic-realist flavor.

Though avowedly a guerrilla-style production — shot with a team of only three (including Winterbottom) and no script — film is also a showcase for Winterbottom’s beginnings as an editor. There’s a careful progression in both the content and explicitness of the sex scenes which is absolutely not random, with a final sequence of unsimulated coupling that has a raw and joyful romanticism.

Matt’s Antarctic reveries, which punctuate the picture, initially seem clumsy, an over-obvious metaphor for the residual power of memory and the inherent bleakness of the couple’s sex-driven relationship. Some lines (“claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place — like two people in a bed”) also seem better suited to a French art movie. But by the final reel, pic attains a cool, serene poetry.

Stilley, an American found via a London casting agency and reportedly the only actress to actually test for the film, is fine as Lisa, with a will-o’-the-wisp quality that reaches right back to another Yank in Europe — Jean Seberg in Godard’s French New Wave classic, “Breathless,” with which “9 Songs” shares more than a few backward glances. O’Brien (from “24 Hour Party People”) brings a rough Britishness — and, uh, considerable physical presence — to Matt.

Though shot on handheld digicam, pic’s look, from cold hard light to rosy-tinted twilight, is extremely varied. Satie-esque piano doodlings decorate many of the love-making scenes, and transfer to 35mm is good, though deliberately not of hi-def quality. The “transfer” was actually done by photographing a digital projection of the pic on a white wall.

For the record, bands featured include Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, Dandy Warhols and Primal Scream, plus footage from a Michael Nyman 60th birthday concert at the Hackney Empire, east London. Reported budget was $160,000, with deferrals.

9 Songs

Market / U.K.

Production

A Tartan Films release (in U.K./U.S.) of a Revolution Films production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Andrew Eaton. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, none.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Marcel Zyskind; editor, Matt Whitecross, Winterbottom; sound (Dolby), Stuart Wilson, Joachim Sundstrom. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 18, 2004. Running time: 69 MIN.

With

Margo Stilley, Kieran O'Brien.
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