Director Michael Winterbottom's explicit series of erotic vignettes finds his characters and 9 Songs asking the same question: Is sex enough to hold your interest? What sets the film apart is that Winterbottom chose to film the actors having real, graphic sex, catapulting the film into the murky waters between art and pornography. The picture follows two lovers, a young American named Lisa and her older beau Matt, a British polar scientist who's packing quite the pole of his own. The movie has no substantial plot and only a glimmer of character. It leaves the viewer to contemplate a relationship whose entire substance is sex.
Winterbottom is an accomplished British director, probably best known to American audiences for his film 24 Hour Party People, about the Manchester music scene. In 9 Songs, Winterbottom alternates carnal episodes with rock concerts the couple attends together, and he relies on this concert footage to carry almost as much of the film as the sex. Aside from a few truncated glimpses into their relationship and the metaphorical pivot of Matt's travels to the icy Antarctic, the film is essentially confined to the concert hall and the bedroom.
Unfortunately, the film never capitalizes on either. What Winterbottom forgets is that context can be as fulfilling as the act itself. The concerts are filmed vérité-style, in hand-held digital video reminiscent of a good bootleg tape. Everyone in attendance seems to be having an amazing time, but Winterbottom is unable or unwilling to share the characters' experiences in a way the audience can connect to.
The sex in the film is similarly isolated. The actors look great, they seem to enjoy each other quite a bit, and despite your best efforts, you will probably find yourself getting aroused. Slowly, though, it dawns on Matt and Lisa that sexual gratification, as a stand-alone experience, is a mechanical act of diminishing returns. The film translates in roughly the same way. As the shock of watching real sex on screen wears off -- and these days, it's not much of a shock -- one begins to yearn for a single shared experience between the characters.
At the end of the film, after Lisa has returned to the U.S., Matt is flying over interlocking sheets of ice, heading out on another scientific expedition. "It's really beautiful," he shouts over the roar of the propellers, yet he doesn't seem very convinced. In the end, this film left me feeling cold as well. Without anything to support its focus, the film feels distant and dull, interesting only because our bodies and our censors tell us so.
Opening Friday, October 14th