Sex on film: 9 Songs (2004, Michael Winterbottom)

I was about 16 when I overheard my mother having a conversation with someone about the US version of Queer As Folk, which had just started airing in Australia late night on (of course, any Aussie will say) SBS. The friend said, not in a condemnatory fashion but more rather surprised, “It’s very confronting.” The thought that ran through my head was: really? What’s so confronting about it? Luckily I didn’t say this out loud, because I realised after my lack of shock at QaF’s more explicit scenes was no doubt due to me being an already seasoned reader of slash fanfiction. (Google it. Ask me about it you’re curious.)

Which probably accounts for my very mild response to the film famous (or infamous, depending on your view of the world) for having the most graphic, unsimulated sex on film outside of pornography, 9 Songs; or at least mild in terms of the sex.

I wouldn’t say it was a ‘well, I’ve seen far worse in pornography’ reaction; I have, but that’s not really the point. Nor a ‘it’s hotter in porn’; sometimes yes, sometimes not, but again, titillation I don’t think was the point of 9 Songs. Though I’m not quite sure what was the point of 9 Songs. I’m not sure if it says anything particularly new or interesting about relationships between young heterosexual people; there is a faint whiff of the cliched trope of the slightly zany, somewhat unhinged girl coupled with the sincere, somewhat frustrated boy.

What else is there? That relationships can be fast and fleeting – in contrast to the other framing device (outside of the nine songs of title), of Matt (Kieran O’Brien) visiting Antarctica, a vast and seemingly timeless landscape? Something about watching a relationship just slip away? It certainly got a little more interesting when things starts to go a bit wrong between Matt and Lisa (Margo Stilley), but it took a while to get there, and for a film just under 70 minutes long that’s not really a good thing.

It’s frustrating, because the sex scenes actually worked well. They felt intimate and believable, with the subtle and not-so-subtle switches between power, strength, vulnerability and pleasure more akin to the sex that, well, I’ve actually had. And there was an artistic and emotional beauty in the way it was filmed The film has been accused of being arty pornography, but I’d have trouble calling it that; pornography might be ‘actual sex’, but calling it real is kind of like saying Evel Knievel’s stunts are representative of what people do when they’re trying to get from point A to B on their motorbike. It’s a shame, then, that it there wasn’t something else to back-up the sex, something more of a narrative or plot or character development or anything else at all, really. Ok, there’s some decent music in there, which I suspect had some reference to the point we were at in Matt and Lisa’s relationship, and kudos to the actors for taking on the parts, but we see little outside of their relationship beyond sex, apart from some random scenes of banter, snide arguments, and the funny little things couples do together. There are all the elements here that can be made to work. I sense it could have worked. Even the randomness that was the Antarctica subplot (though I suspect this might have been so Winterbottom could feature the rather nice line said by Matt to describe the continent: claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place. Like two people in a bed. Or he just likes filming in difficult places. See The Claim for more snow and director Michael Winterbottom filming on a grand scale, if not one of his greater movies.)

The venture really could have done with the guiding hand of a screenplay; Winterbottom is without his frequent scriptwriting collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce, and workshopped the film with both his actors, and this is I think where it falls down. The boldness of what he was doing with his actors needed a far bolder story. Winterbottom is a director who I am very fond of, for when he gets it right, he gets it very, very right (Welcome to Sarajevo and A Cock and Bull Story are both films I love, I adore the latter’s TV series quasi-sequel The Trip, and 24 Hour Party People brilliantly plays with history and storytelling and music). It’s a pity that this wasn’t one of those films, because people will really only remember the film as ‘that one with the rock concerts and *gasp* actual sex.’ And frankly, we should be able to have ‘real sex’ alongside striking stories too.

Official site: 9 Songs