9 Songs

The film has music by the following groups:

Primal Scream

Franz Ferdinand

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

Super Furry Animals

The Dandy Warhols

Elbow

Sleek aluminum shoehorn

from designer Henry Huang

Michael Winterbottom’s best work operates at the cusp of fiction and documentary. Shooting cheaply with digital video, working without scripted dialogue or sets, sometimes employing non-actors, he uses real world elements both to authenticate his stories (In This World is all the more harrowing because of the taciturn desperation of the Afghan refugees who serve as its stars) and to undermine them (24 Hour Party People recreates legendary events from the birth of Manchester punk rock only to bring in the actual participants to dispute the film’s veracity). Nine Songs takes this impulse to genuinely radical extremes, melding elements of concert documentary and pornography in an attempt to make its simple love story as immediate and intimate as possible.

The basic premise – attractive young couple meets at a London concert, goes home and to bed, then spends the next few months watching trendy bands and having sex – could have been hatched by an MTV executive. With a car chase added, it could be the perfect film for randy nineteen year old boys. The actual experience of the film is quite different. Though the sex that occupies half of the running time is real and explicit, it’s oddly tentative. For most of the film, these scenes fade to black midway through. If pornography insists on gynecological exactitude, Nine Songs favors golden light and shadows. This is porn without the money shots; anyone who attends the film for its promise of titillation is likely to end up bewildered.

For a movie that splits its time between rutting and rock and roll, the tone is somber and melancholic. The film opens with aerial shots of Antarctica, accompanied by a dour voiceover. Matt (Kieran O’Brien) is looking back on his brief relationship with the volatile Lisa (Margo Stilley), trying to piece together why it failed. The icescapes are, of course, a hint – Matt studies ice professionally, just to make the metaphor absolutely clear – as is Lisa’s insistence on condoms. The film is about self-imposed distance, the inability to connect within even the most intimate moments.

Chronicling a couple with no inner life together is audacious, and if anything, Winterbottom is too effective. Matt and Lisa share nothing but sex and music – they are only fully alive onscreen in bed. Though this might capture the truth of the relationship, it corners the actors in those few moments when they have to talk. They are fully expressive in one another’s arms, but reduced to forced banter otherwise. Their arguments and flirtations often sound like acting class improv exercises.

Winterbottom always allows his characters some mystery – he doesn’t use the standard screenwriter’s tricks to flesh out backstory and explain behavior through dialogue. Following Rossellini and DeSica, he expects the actors to inhabit their roles through sheer physicality and presence; we come to know them through watching what they do, rather than what they tell us about themselves. When the strategy works – Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah in In This World, or Sean Harris in 24 Hour Party People - the actors’ essential reserve becomes fascinating. Here, the effect generates less mystery than apathy – O’Brien and Stilley seem not so much unknowable as dull.

Devoting half the film to concert scenes – full songs played by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Von Bondies, Elbow, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols, the Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand and, bizarrely, Michael Nyman – further muddies the impact of the film. The music seems designed to illuminate their emotional life, the frantic bursts of calculated passion mirroring the drama unfolding in Matt’s bed. The actual sex scenes, however, are scored not to frenetic rock and roll but to tinkly piano music. The back and forth from concert to bedroom never coheres; rather than reflections of (or comments on) the primary story, the songs become intrusions. Shots of the concert audiences promise glimpses of Matt and Lisa watching the bands and the hope that we might learn something – anything at all – about them overrides the attractions of the music.

Winterbottom is as fearless and inventive as any major filmmaker working today. With each film he reinvents his formal strategies, constantly pushing himself into different genres (he’s made costume dramas, science fiction, mockumentaries, a Western) while exploring the expressive range of new technologies and hybrid styles. He’s one of the few directors self-consciously pushing the medium forward in the context of features that audiences might actually see. Even his failures are interesting and worthy of support. For all its problems and incoherence, Nine Songs is both original and daring. It’s worth a dozen "better" films.

Gary Mairs

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