Back in the mid-eighties some film school friends of mine were convinced they’d found something really special – a porn flick called “Holly Does Hollywood” which, they believed, might be directed by Brian de Palma (it shared a title with the porn film within his Body Double). A special at-home screening revealed it to be nothing more than another porn film, no de Palmesque split screen or tracking shots, no pointless Hitchcock homages, just a regular old, porn film, tedious insertion shots and all.
But this question remained much on the minds of many a h***y filmlover (i.e., me) for years: What would happen if actual directors with actual talent directed actual sex? It had been tried once or twice before, most famously in Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, but actual sex seemed to be pretty much the last frontier for legitimate filmmaking — until the last few years. Catherine Breilat, for one, has based a big chunk of her career on crossing the pornographic/dramatic divide. Leos Carax has also included brief hardcore footage in his compelling Pola X, which really didn’t need it. Not being one to let those randy French have all the fun, Denmark’s ever-austere Lars von Trier included hardcore footage (shot with body-doubles) in The Idiots. And of course we cannot forget The Brown Bunny and the b*****b heard ‘round the world.
Now, England’s globetrotting Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People) has decided to raise the stakes a step further with 9 Songs, an attempt at an eye-level depiction of a relationship from start to apparent finish — punctuated nine times by songs from such current hipster favorites as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand and the Dandy Warhols, as well as the morose musical stylings of pianist Michael Nyman.
The idea of making a contemporary love story where events just naturally continue into hardcore sex, instead of the usual brief simulated lovemaking followed by a discrete fade-out, remains an intriguing idea, though perhaps not an advisable one. In any case, for the first portions of 9 Songs, it seems as if Winterbottom might be on to something. There’s plenty of realistic hardcore love making in 9 Songs and some strong erotic moments – though that’s clearly very much in the eyes, and other parts, of the beholder.
Still, the trouble begins early as the film’s lengthy musical interludes fail to come alive. The camera always seems at an excessive distance and the digital aesthetic serves only to alienate us from the music. Worse, as the story, such as it is, progresses, the relationship surrounding the lovemaking fails to generate any interest. Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stiley as Matt and Lisa, the two music-loving lovers, perform capably enough in and out of bed, but the couple’s meeting and mutual seduction is entirely left out of the movie and we never get to know much about them other than the obvious. What little we know about their emotions is revealed through banal dialogue, much of it stuff we’ve heard a million times both in the movies and in real life (at one point, Matt’s narration reveals that it’s possible to feel alone in a crowd).
The seeming intent is to make the couple’s gradual emotional disengagement more relatable in the “everybody’s been through this” sense, but Matt and Lisa never develop as individuals, or at least not as interesting or likeable individuals. They might be sexually dynamic; they might seem to be dancing toward the edge of drug addiction, snorting lines of coke before and after lovemaking and then lapsing into mutually-accusatory discussions of their drug use; but otherwise they are no more interesting than any two attractive, somewhat superficial people you might meet in any rock venue.
Exceptions to the monotony are rare, except for brief glimpses of Matt’s work with Antarctic ice formations (the press notes, but not the film, tell us that he’s a glaciologist). It’s an obvious metaphor that nevertheless provides a welcome break from all that increasingly tedious sex.
In fact, as 9 Songs played out for sixty-nine (count ‘em!) minutes, I started to find myself wishing they would just end the interminable, deliberately underlit, sex scenes and get back to those really hot pics of Antarctica.