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9 Songs (2004)

Nine Songs

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 71 minutes

US Certificate: Not Rated UK Certificate: 18


Matt (Kieran O’Brien) is a British geologist who analyses sample bores of ice, deciphering thousands of years of glacial history from their compacted layers. As he does fieldwork in the extreme isolation of Antarctica, he finds himself also examining a single year from his own life, trying to piece together from a few intense memories – nine different gigs which perfectly captured the mood of the moment, and some episodes of sexual intimacy which came in between – what if any significance there was in his relationship (now over, or at least on ice) with visiting American student Lisa (Margo Stilley), and whether he was any less lonely then than he is now on the icy wastes.

Shot in digital video with a tiny crew and a speaking cast of just two, and composed almost entirely of live concert footage and sex scenes, ‘9 Songs’ is an experiment in reductive narrative. Its basic storyline – guy meets girl, they have a relationship and then split up – is so familiar from real life as well as from countless films that director Michael Winterbottom can afford to dispense with any peripheral details and get right down to what is most essential in Matt’s memory. Bold as this strategy may be, it is more than a mere exercise in formalism – for the film’s Antarctic frame orients its viewers as geologists, and reveals the evolution of a relationship in tightly focussed cross-sections which not only encapsulate the most heightened moments of connection between the lovers, but also expose all the tell-tale signs of fissure, fatigue and encroaching chill. Exploring the lonely voids of the Antarctic produces, as Matt puts it, “claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place, like two people in a bed” – and he seems unsure whether sex and music are enough to stave off, however briefly, the icy cold of human existence.

So ‘9 Songs’ is a contemplative, melancholic piece about memory, longing and loneliness, and in this respect it is not unlike Michael Winterbottom’s other film from the same year, the dystopian sci-fi ‘Code 46’. Yet it is the sex scenes, a pervasive and graphic element in ‘9 Songs’, which are destined to raise an eyebrow – if not much else – amidst the chattering classes. Without question the hard-core material makes ‘9 Songs’ very much an adult film, but this is all the more reason for viewers to take an adult attitude towards it. There is nothing pornographic in Winterbottom’s handling of sex – on the contrary, in a manoeuvre which Freud would admire, Winterbottom uses the act and its various modulations to define as concisely as possible the shiftings of a relationship, and he is far too concerned with the twinned dynamics of togetherness and alienation to bother about trying to turn on his audience. Here cunnilingus expresses adoration, condoms establish a certain distance, masturbation reflects frustration (and the exclusion of the partner), fellatio is used as an apology, bondage scenes reveal that only one of the partners really ever calls the shots no matter which of them is tied up and blindfolded – and a visit to a lap-dancing club seems designed as a direct response to the conventions of mainstream porn, for here the focus is on Lisa’s pleasure and Matt’s humiliation rather than the other way round.

The cinematography (by Marcel Zyskind) is intimate rather than voyeuristic, the two actors manage to seem as comfortable (and at times uncomfortable) with each other as a real couple – and, perhaps most audaciously of all in the decade which has brought The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, The Aviator and Alexander, the concise 71 minutes of ‘9 Songs’ seems just the right length.

It's Got: Live concert footage of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, the Von Bondies, Elbow, Primal Scream, the Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand and Michael Nyman; believable performances; an intelligent, frank and unsensationalised attitude to sex; a pervasive mood of melancholy.

It Needs: To be avoided by anyone sensitive to explicit scenes of sex – but also by anyone looking for pornographic kicks.

DVD Extras Aspect ratio 1.85:1; scene selection; choice of 2.0 stereo/5.1 Dolby digital; The 9 Songs music-only option (although notably no sex-only option); introduction by Tom Dewe Mathews, author of Censored: What They Didnt Allow You to See and Why – the Story of Film Censorship in Britain (15min) on how groundbreaking are both the treatment of sex in 9 Songs, and the British Board of Film Classifications decision to pass it uncut; interview with director Michael Winterbottom (6min), who claims that the sex scenes became very normal after two days, and reveals that the 9 songs were culled from 150 that had been filmed; interview with actor Kieran OBrien (8min) who with good humour describes the difficulty of the test shoot, the complete lack of a script (on a five month shoot), and Micky Winterbottoms tendency to do the opposite of his actors suggestions; interview with actor Margot Stilley (13min) on how she "was a consenting adult" and "believed in the film" despite not being "the kind of girl who gets her tits out", on how she had no off-set relationship with Kieran OBrien, on how her favourite scenes are the moments of sex-free improvisation, and on how she was surprised by, and unprepared for, all the tabloid attention; original theatrical trailer (plus trailers for other Optimum titles). Version reviewed: 9 Songs (Optimum Home Entertainment) DVD Extras Rating: 5/10


These nine cross-sections of a one-year relationship may be graphic, but they are also suffused with a cool melancholy.