9 Songs (2004) Movie Review

Writer/director Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” is about a 20-something couple who meets during a live concert, retires to the man’s apartment for a night of marathon sex, then decides to shack up for a couple of months or so. As the movie’s reputation has indicated, in-between the trips to the same concert venue to listen to the live bands (nine of them to be precise, hence the title), our main characters Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley) have lots and lots of graphic sex, all of it shot in graphic detail.

Sometimes Matt and Lisa dresses up and engage in mild S&M. Sometimes they take trips to the countryside. And sometimes they walk on the beach and strip naked and jump into the freezing cold water professing their love for one another. But they always, somehow, manage to end up in bed, or in a tub, or on the dresser, or on the kitchen table, having sex. That is, until Lisa (who is American) declares out of the blue that she has to go home, and Matt (a Brit) heads off to Antarctica to study glaciers, or some such. Thus, ends 65 minutes of movie.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure who is the target audience Winterbottom had in mind when he decided to make “9 Song”. To be sure, it’s not a very expensive production, and I’m reasonably certain that much (if not all) of the film is shot on digital, much of it without extra lighting, which gives the film a grainy, bleak look. The fact that Matt and Lisa’s fling is not destined for a happy ending seems a given, if not by the way Winterbottom reveals “9 Songs” from frame one, then in the fact that movies about people engaging in lots of pointless sex never turn out happy for any of the participants. I’m pretty sure this is a Movie Rule or something.

True to advance word on the film, there is indeed lots of actual intercourse, fellatio, and even one ejaculation scene. Nary a minute of screentime goes by without the duo having sex or standing, laying, or sitting about naked. There’s not a whole lot of dialogue, and what dialogue there is are so spur-of-the-moment that you imagine the two actors are probably adlibbing the whole thing. In that way, I suppose it’s not too much of a stretch to think of “9 Songs” as similar to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise”, except with sex and less intelligent conversation. But like Linklater’s film, there’s a certain honesty here, especially in the way Matt and Lisa struggles to get through a single day together without feeling the need to expose their genitals.

Actor Kieran O’Brien (who was also in the director’s “24 Hour Party People”, as well as the HBO epic “Band of Brothers” playing, if I’m not mistaken, a mousy mail clerk), has the meatier (no pun intended) of the two principle roles. Whereas Matt seems to have some inkling of substance, Margot Stilley’s Lisa is mostly an empty vessel of aimless sex, only present, it seems, to engage in random acts of lewdness with O’Brien’s character. (In a bit of trivia, the American Stilley hails from, according to a poster on IMDB.com, “the Bible-belt town of Hubert, North Carolina”. How interesting are those Stilley family gatherings, you think? “Hey, Margot, got any meaty roles lately?”)

I’m sure if one was in a mood to dig deep into “9 Songs” one could come up with something insightful to say about how the tribal nature of the concert footages parallels the emptiness of Matt and Lisa’s relationship, as both provides instant gratification and a feeling of belonging with the world, only to have that feeling dissipate once the concert (or the sex) is over. Most people who have been in a relationship like Matt and Lisa’s, or a slight variation of it, knows the sudden rush of newfound love (or in some cases, lust), only to have that uncontrollable burst of energy be replaced by emptiness once the initial thrill suddenly takes flight. What is left, then? Once the concert is over, once the adrenaline of the moment, of the 5,000 people moving as one to a loud, throbbing, nearly incomprehensible sound, is gone, there is only the individual. For Matt and Lisa, it seems, the individual is not worth very much.

Towards the end of “9 Songs”, we see a darker side of Lisa, including signs of mental imbalance. Perhaps if this was explored further we might get a better handle on who Lisa is. Then again, there are a lot of things about “9 Songs” that Winterbottom could have done better, including providing the audience with a sympathetic narrative. But I suppose offering the film up in its current form, with its disjointed narrative and seemingly randomness, could very well be the whole point. After all, relationships like this are never as coherent and clear when one thinks of it from a distance; they are almost always a jumbled series of sexual encounters, arguments, and moments of out-of-the-blue serendipity. How much of the mundane, trivial moments do we remember? Especially in a relationship as fleeting and empty as this?

“9 Songs” will most likely go down as an oddity in the otherwise semi-mainstream career of director Michael Winterbottom. From the same man who directed “The Claim” and “Jude”, “9 Songs” will seem like a slight detour, more of a vanity project than anything else. And yet, for Winterbottom and anyone who has been in the shoes of Matt and Lisa, this is a film that could very well be the most real depiction of a one-night stand that somehow turned into a four-month stand yet.

Michael Winterbottom (director) / Michael Winterbottom (screenplay)
CAST: Kieran O’Brien …. Matt
Margot Stilley …. Lisa


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