9 Songs (2005)

2005-07-22 (Limited release)

Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs fuses two frequently underachieving genres: the rock documentary and the porno. What results is a relationship picture. An English bloke, Matt (Kieran O’Brien), working in remote Antarctica, remembers his affair with American Lisa (Margo Stilley). They meet at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club concert in London and later have enthusiastic sex. We see them during other concerts, more bedroom encounters, and sometimes a little of the space in between.

Despite the screen time given to sex and rock ‘n roll (drugs come in a distant third for this couple), it is this quiet space that matters. For a movie that arrives on U.S. shores carrying a good deal of press (in the alterna-weeklies, anyway) for its single-minded explicitness — the sex scenes are lengthy and, in some cases, clearly not simulated — 9 Songs contains a surprising amount of downtime and dialogue. The couple compares the dancing styles of Americans and Europeans, chats absently over breakfast, occasionally has a minor tiff.

We observe Matt and Lisa with uncommon fascination, scrutinizing their brief exchanges for clues to the rest of their courtship. Winterbottom’s mostly improvised screenplay adroitly allows small gestures to imply broader connections: Matt’s working on dinner alone seems particularly lonely after seeing the couple playfully making breakfast earlier in the film. The actors perform “naturally,” seamlessly incorporating any potential awkwardness into their characters’ sweet but tenuous couplehood.

The sex scenes benefit from this context, however spare. While there is no erotic tension over when or how the stars will remove their clothes as we see intercourse almost immediately (the film’s upfront approach rivals the most impatient pornography), even the slightest exchanges between Matt and Lisa render the explicit content sexier than most filmed sex scenes (fictional or not). This sexiness is rooted in their plausibility as a couple; they look like people you might see at a rock concert, appropriately enough.

With sex and conversation taking up so much of the film’s time, the considerable amount of concert footage feels like a bit of an afterthought, even though the scenes convey the feeling of being in an audience better than most concert footage. There are a lot of long shots of the performers, and few of the on-stage close-ups found in most rock films. This is fitting, as most of the bands, including the Von Bondies, Franz Ferdinand, and the Dandy Warhols, while enjoyable, don’t warrant mythologizing docs of their own.

Neither the music nor the sex looks much like typical filmed accounts because 9 Songs was shot on grainy, gray video, giving most scenes the impression of an overcast day (it’s also set in London, so this is a bit like using a soft-focus lens while shooting on location in Heaven). Along with the occasional cuts back to Matt’s solitude in Antarctica, the photography is perhaps too quick to highlight the film’s grimness. Video images can have a raw, immediate power, but they don’t allow for much aesthetic variation, and we already know the relationship is not headed toward harmony.

This may be why the film falls short of poetry — it’s more an engaging and memorable novelty than a great work of art. But at a cheeky 69 minutes, 9 Songs knows the limits of its material, and doesn’t test them. Both rock movies and porn have a way of inflating their subjects (the self-destructive guitar hero, the porn star who does it in heels) such that they hardly seem real. That’s part of their appeal. 9 Songs combines the genres but jettisons that hubris, offering the more attainable fantasy of two people going to see a bunch of cool bands and having a lot of sex afterward. The film then admits that the pleasure of both can be fleeting, and the memory vivid.