Mighty Real: A Review of “9 Songs”

I was digging through my archives the other day, came across this, and was extremely entertained by it. I think I’m the only film critic on the face of the planet who actually sort of liked “9 Songs.” I may be the only sentient being on the face of the planet who actually sort of liked “9 Songs.” I think there are giant seven-eyed mollusks from the planet Zarquon who hated “9 Songs.” So I decided I should come clean about it and stand by my eccentric opinion. Here’s the review I wrote of it for Adult FriendFinder Magazine. Enjoy!

Mighty Real
Copyright 2005 Greta Christina. Written for Adult FriendFinder Magazine.

9 Songs. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written by Michael Winterbottom, Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley. Starring Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley. Unrated.

Before I say anything, let me get this out of the way: This is the movie where people have sex. If you’ve heard about “9 Songs,” this is almost certainly the Number One thing you’ve heard about it. The actors — not the characters, the actual actors playing the characters — have literal, explicit, non-simulated, actual real-life genital fucking-and-sucking sex. And rather a lot of it, too.

Now obviously, if I were talking about a porno movie, this would be so uninteresting as to be laughable. But for a non-porn, semi-mainstream art-house movie, it’s pretty much unheard of. And whatever buzz is being generated about the movie is being generated because of it. Which is kind of too bad. Because while the sex in “9 Songs” is pretty interesting, the fact that it’s “real sex” isn’t the most interesting thing about it.

So I wanted to get that out of the way right off. And in fact, the movie gets it out of the way almost as quickly, establishing its “real-sex” credentials in the very first scene between the two main characters — so you can get a good look at it, and get used to it, and move on.

See, here’s the interesting thing about “9 Songs.” It isn’t that the sex is “real,” or even that there’s so much of it. What’s interesting about “9 Songs” is the way the movie uses sex. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (“24 Hour Party People,” “Welcome to Sarajevo”), “9 Songs” uses sex to tell the story of a couple’s relationship (well, okay, sex interspersed with songs at live rock concerts). We find out about Matt and Lisa (Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley) and the rise and fall of their love affair, not through a series of conversations, but through a series of sex acts. The way they’re having sex — what they do, how they seem to feel about it, how it gets started, who takes the lead, how well they pay attention — this is how we find out about who these people are and what they’re like together.

And here’s what struck me. In most mainstream (i.e., non-porn) movies, when two characters have sex, it’s the very fact that they’re having sex that’s important. Typical movie sex shows people having sex for the first time; even when it’s not a first time, sex is almost always used as a plot point, a shocker or a turning point, a newly opened door or a burned bridge. Filmmakers don’t bother to show you anything special about the sex, don’t bother to make the style and the feel of the sex unique to those characters. The fact that they’re having sex is apparently special enough. The actual sex can just be generically hot movie sex, with perhaps a few broad strokes (rough or tender, quick or slow, loving or cold) to paint a marginally more specific picture.

But in “9 Songs,” the fact that Matt and Lisa are having sex is a given. They’re having sex from the very beginning of the movie, and by the second or third scene, the fact that they’re having sex is no more surprising than the fact that any two people in a relationship are having sex. So it’s the kind of sex they’re having, the tone and flavor of it, that becomes important.

For instance. There’s a scene where Matt ties Lisa up, blindfolds her, and begins guiding her through a fantasy, telling her “Forget where you are” and making up an erotic story for her to imagine and enjoy. But almost immediately she takes over the storytelling, picking it up and running with it in an entirely different direction, taking control away even as she’s bound and blindfolded.

For another instance. There’s a scene where Matt and Lisa go to a strip club together, apparently to enjoy this naughty thrill together as a couple. But as the scene unfolds, Lisa become increasingly entranced with the dancer, ignoring Matt entirely and even forgetting that he’s there — to the point that she doesn’t notice when he takes off and walks out the door.

There are many, many more instances. There’s a scene where Lisa is masturbating, with the door open and Matt in the next room; not in a friendly “showing off for my lover” way, not even in a feminist-empowered “my body, my right to masturbate” way, but in a defensive, closed-off, “fuck you I don’t care what you think or want” way (exacerbated by the fact that, as always, they’re at his house). There’s a scene where Matt asks if she thinks they’ll ever have sex without a condom, and Lisa says no: not because of safety, but because she likes it better with one. There are scenes near the end of the film where Lisa feels Matt slipping away and starts becoming more sexually attentive and affectionate. I could go on and on. The whole movie is like this, with the actors expressing subtle emotional shadings and character traits during sex scene after sex scene after sex scene.

And again, it struck me how rare that is, in both mainstream movies and porn. Mainstream actors spend years learning to express emotion and character in the way they walk, speak, smoke, eat, scratch their head, look in a mirror, everything. But sex is either supposed to come naturally, or it’s not considered important and unique enough to work on. And porn actors — even the ones who can act — spend so much time and energy trying to look hot that there’s nothing left for depicting the way their particular character would have hot sex. (I still remember how great Rocco Siffredi was in the arthouse movie “Romance” — until it came to the sex scenes, and he stopped being Paolo the character and just became Rocco the porn star.)

The fact that the sex is real isn’t entirely trivial, of course. You’d think it would work as a shocker, and it does a bit at first. Even I was staring at the actor’s genitals for the first few minutes, making sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. But after a while, the realness of the sex has the exact opposite effect: it normalizes it. It presents sex as natural: one of the things people in love do together, and therefore interesting to look at and worth depicting as authentically as possible. (Director Michael Winterbottom himself has commented on this, pointing out that, “If you film actors eating a meal, the food is real.”) The scenes at the rock shows are given the same casually loving attention as the scenes in the bedroom, putting sex in the same category as music: an integral part of the characters’ lives, important but not separate. And while there’s no special attempt to show you the fucking and sucking in all its close-up glory the way porn movies do, there’s no special attempt to avoid the shot, either. It’s just normal, filmed like a normal aspect of love and coupledom, beautiful and moving and fucked-up and funny and sad.

And of course, the fact that the sex is real puts “9 Songs” firmly on the line between porn and art. You know how non-porn movies have become more and more sexually daring (some of them, anyway), and how porn movies have become more artistically interesting and innovative (some of them, anyway)? You know how that line between the two has started to blur, the way it seemed like it was going to in the ’70s before everything went to hell and the two split off back into their own little worlds? Well “9 Songs” is trying to make that happen again. It’s more than just the latest salvo in the campaign, more than just the latest push of the envelope. “9 Songs” has plonked itself squarely on the fence between the two territories, sitting its big naked butt in the gateway and holding the gate open for anyone else who wants to come through. In either direction.

But does it work? Sure, it’s an important event in the history of cinema, blah blah blah. But is it a good movie? For the most part, I’d say yes. It’s very much a small movie — it’s not even a slice of life, it’s a sliver — driven less by plot and narrative than it is by feelings and images. You have to have patience with that sort of thing, with a quiet, meandering story that takes a while to establish itself and doesn’t really go very far. And the voiceovers during the Antarctic scenes (the movie is presented as a flashback, with Matt remembering the relationship while he studies glaciers) are pretentious to the point of teeth-gnashing madness. So you’ll have to have patience with that, too.

But if you can deal with this sort of small, quiet, occasionally pretentious arthouse movie, I think your patience will be rewarded. It’s perceptive and thoughtful about sex, about love, about relationships, about the places they do and don’t overlap. The sex is beautiful to watch, even when it’s sad, erotic and romantic in the way that your own sex life might be erotic and romantic. And if you’re at all interested in the way sex is (and is not) depicted in movies, then rush your butt out to the arthouse before it goes away. You absolutely cannot miss this one.

Mighty Real: A Review of “9 Songs”
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One thought on “Mighty Real: A Review of “9 Songs”

  1. 1

    I haven’t seen it yet, but from your description, it sounds like a movie that could possibly have one more fan. I adored “Shortbus.” Parts of it made me sob. (Although, that could also have been helped along by the vodka I snuck into my Coke cup, and maybe I was PMSing.)
    I’m also one who often finds herself in the minority on Netflix, giving 5 stars to movies that others find confounding. But it seems that the movies that bring me to gut-twisting tears tend to be the ones that leave most people scratching their heads and asking for their 2 hours of life back. So go figure.

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