Dirty Pretty Things: Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs”
by Eric Hynes with responses by Kristi Mitsuda and Nick Pinkerton
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
The first 30 seconds of “9 Songs” are a teaser trailer for the 70 minutes that follow: the camera flying above a barren glacial landscape before cutting to the breathy, shrouded face of an orgasmic woman, then jostling into a crowded rock show at London’s Brixton Academy. Those images — overlaid by the first and most succinct voice-over from our male lead — abstract plot, character, and the aural and visual themes so well that, much like the effect of an over-descriptive trailer, sitting through the ensuing film feels anticlimactic. Which, I presume, is pretty much what director Michael Winterbottom had in mind for this melancholic presentation of two hetero fuck buddies and the doomed union of their grainy, color-saturated genitalia. The relationship enacted and described, along with the systematic, punch-card presentation of copulation’s greatest hits, seems tailored to meet art-house viewing expectations. But while offering the buttoned-up bourgeois thrill of tastefully lit kink, “9 Songs”‘s blank-slate mise-en-scene also invites self-identification for the discomforting sake of showing sex as utterly, deflatingly common.
In the opening voice-over, Matt (Kieran O’Brien) thinks back on his time with Lisa (Margo Stilley) and remembers not what she did or said but rather “her smell, her taste, her skin touching mine.” By cutting straight to the heat of Matt’s memories, Winterbottom throws down a minimalist gauntlet that he abandons as quickly as Matt’s sensual memories turn sentimental. Easy, nonverbal moments in bed slowly give way to stirrings of passive aggression and disingenuously canned declarations of love. Eventually, each recalled encounter concludes with Lisa thwarting Matt’s deeper affections.
To the credit of O’Brien and Stilley, the romantic impasse feels appropriate — Matt, an Englishman in his thirties, wants an emotional intimacy that Lisa, a 21-year-old American vagabond, actively avoids. Yet there’s more than a touch of cliché-inversion to their personalities, particularly since, with so little to work with, Matt and Lisa come off as disrobed embodiments of these sketched attributes. Bleeding-heart men and dispassionate, sexually satisfied women are hardly undercharacterized these days (and full-penetrative art porn is hardly as taboo-breaking as I suspect the filmmakers — dutifully recording the engorgement and thrust with staid, scientific self-importance — believe it still is), and “9 Songs” would benefit from letting the natural awkwardness of its actors humanize the types they’re enlisted to play. But just when Stilley’s odd, self-consciously performative presence starts to justify itself, Matt’s voice-over reboxes her with insight like, “She was 21, beautiful, egotistical, careless, and crazy.” Oh, those crazy 21-year-old girls: Can’t live wit’ em, can’t stop fuckin’ em.
With the emotional scales tipping in Matt’s favor, physical gratification favors Lisa. If you’re counting (and you know Winterbottom is), cunnilingis beats fellatio 3 to 1. Autoerotic stimulation is a feminine shutout. Furthermore (spoiler alert: more supposed formula-busting to follow) looks of orgasmic pleasure are almost exclusively Lisa’s. Stilley’s flat, boyish physique (also unnecessarily verbalized) allows for some nicely ambiguous frames, as does O’Brien’s short, stout, compliant posture. Their sex looks awkward and forced but believable — if unappetizing — considering they are, after all, strangers to each other. In achieving this, Winterbottom’s purported method of throwing his actors in bed together with minimal prior contact seems to have paid off, as does his casting of O’Brien, a professional actor capable of emotional suggestion. Stilley, though, a novice with only modeling experience to her credit, seems to struggle with the expectations of “naturalness” that her casting implies, along with the burden of carnality and elusiveness that, despite all that cliché-inversion, she’s quite naturally asked to shoulder. In any event, the sight and sound of her sucking-fish kisses veer certain scenes well off the sexy or sexually awkward or awkwardly sexy path and suggest new roads of revolting distraction.
Dovetailing with Lisa and Matt’s fragmentary relations are live concert performances by established British bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Super Furry Animals, and Elbow, which warrant the film’s title. Having met at one such performance, our couple returns to ensuing shows, and their vantage, from the middle of these vast standing-room clubs, is ours. This footage, regardless of a particular band’s appeal or lack thereof, nicely counterpoints — and occasionally compliments — the punch-card sex scenes. Shot from eye-level and disorientingly zoomed-in and flat, the performances are simultaneously distant and intimate.
Considering the imperfect sound and poor vantage combined with the rush of undivided attention and crush of shoulder-to-shoulder humanity, this feels about right. At its best, “9 Songs” lets its subjects approach and retreat and compare and clash without explicating its intentions, or megaphoning the decidedly modest implications thereof. Wholly uncommentaried, the rock performances outperform the sex scenes as romantic memory machine. We often track our lives and our relationships by shows and movies seen, books read, places passed through. We hang our memories on these placemarkers, which, of course, are just as transient and temporal as the time and people we ask them to preserve.
[ Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer. ]
By Kristi Mitsuda
Is it porn or is it art? This is the primary question posed by an initial viewing of “9 Songs.” And then, quickly following on its heels: Are such distinctions necessary or simply classist? Is it only because we have no other language for graphic descriptions of sexuality that the term must come into play? Will there ever be a time when sexual explicitness will be old-hat on the art-house circuit? Given that the purpose of art is to address the fundamental issues besetting humanity, I find it amazing that erotic explorations arise so rarely.
Winterbottom’s latest certainly shares in many tropes of adult video: low production values, sparse dialogue and plot, abundant use of music, and close-ups on genitalia. The uneasy response that inevitably accompanies its viewing in a cultured context is one of its most interesting facets. The conflation of two typically mutually-exclusive genres — could there be a bigger collapse of the high- and low-brow? — forces us to face our internalized prudishness seldom directly confronted by “respectable” cinema wherein, more often, we’re tacitly congratulated for our liberal open-mindedness. Striking testament to this discomfort could be found at my press screening, as two seemingly mature women dissolved into embarrassed giggles and furtive whispers at the onset of nearly every sexual setpiece.
As porn, measured by the only criterion available to gauge success — its heat- inducing capabilities — “9 Songs” is a resounding triumph. Winterbottom’s fusion of purely physical passion with the power of musical recall elicits an intense evocation of desire. But as art? Not so much. It lacks resonance beyond the immediate moment, the structuring often feels too schematic, and the setting of the current scene in Antarctica seems an affectation meant to lend a gloss of poeticism. Still, its focus on female pleasure, focalized through the male perspective though it may be, marks it a welcome cinematic contribution in and of itself.
[ Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick. ]
By Nick Pinkerton
You can practically hear the pretentious scoff from the “9 Songs” press kit, which goes out of its way to announce that director Michael Winterbottom “is utterly indifferent to actual pornography.” It’s a galling pomposity, for if his new film fulfills any function, it’s to make “amateur” pornography aesthetically palatable to the nervous art-house-goer. To paraphrase the old joke, the difference between pornography and art nowadays is lighting, so the couple in “9 Songs” screw — on crappy DV — in front of blown-out windows, and with mushy, tentative piano on the soundtrack. Slim-hipped American model Margo Stilley makes her acting debut getting fucked silly onscreen by Brit Kieran O’Brien — he’s a stolid hardcore stud with a dependable boner, she’s a nattering twit, copulating soullessly for a glint of limelight. It’s inevitable that some jackass will write about the “bravery” of their performances — but that same bravery is on display for $29.95 a month at amateurfacials.com.
Sex sessions are diced up with murkily-shot concert performances, equally mechanical, from some of the most forgettable shite rock acts ever to earn slavering reviews on the pages of Mojo — ah, but at least the surly mediocrity of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is now preserved for posterity! “9 Songs”: a veritable compendium of hedged bets — smut for cool kids who feign boredom at the real thing and disposable junk-pop for the same crowd that’s too mature for Blink-182.
The transparent bandwagonism in Winterbottom’s hitching a ride on the succès-de-scandale glut of art-porn provocation is nauseating. The Last Taboo of lingered-on penetration is being broken with stuttered repetition: In the deluge we have Terry Richardson and Nan Goldin; Michel Houellebecq, “Catherine M.,” “The Surrender“; “Brown Bunny,” Breillat, “Baise-moi“… Houellebecq‘s “Platform” was apparently the impetus for Winterbottom to pursue a XXX project (is he referencing the book in one of Stilley’s banal Thailand vacation fantasies?), but all he seems to have taken from the artcore dam-burst is a moronic conviction that “graphic” and “truth-telling” are interchangeable.
I’m sure too many people will be corralled into the theater on the rep of Winterbottom’s steaming loaf, but let me suggest that the “9 Songs” experience can be more cheaply reproduced by listening to some smarmy college kid’s iTunes and watching “Crème de la Face Vol. 17.” Oh, and you should occasionally flip over to a Nature Channel documentary, because, just to make sure we know we’re watching Art, Winterbottom tosses us a metaphor the size of Antarctica — shit, it is Antarctica! You can’t masturbate in the theater, but “9 Songs” self-copulates plenty for everyone.
[ Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor. ]