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9 Songs

cast: Kieran O'Brien, Margo Stilley

director: Michael Winterbottom

69 minutes (18) 2004
High Fliers VHS rental
Also available to rent on DVD

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Andrew Darlington
Touch, sound, taste... The senses. The physical sensations... "Two lovers: One Year." That's the tagline. There's angular long-limbed anorexic-skinny Lisa - "21, beautiful, egotistical, careless, crazy," a detox-model-type American (played by Margo Stilley). And there's Matt, a British glaciologist (Kieran O'Brien). They meet in the radiant abyss of a Brixton Academy gig-night, and intersperse a clatter-rock fusillade of other concerts (usually at the same venue), with cooking, eating, and having a multi-positional A-to-Z of access-all-areas sex. Tongues flick-flicking. Pale limbs intertwining. There's more expenditure on coke-snorting than the minimal costume-budget, her blindfold gets to be the only garb to stay in place for any length of time. It's told in a rough-cut fragmentary disconnected way, as he recalls this arc of episodes in a looped-narrative way, during a walking-expedition in the whiteout whiteness of Antarctica - "the planet's memory... agoraphobia and claustrophobia in the same space," hence the original working title 'Ice'. His memories equate the deep-core ice-samples his drill extracts. Taken from a frozen past, suspended a million years in time.

This is a 69-minute movie of cheap handheld video picture quality that somehow contrives to be subjectively even longer (although that's as close to 69 as you get). Dialogue is slight, and stilted, "sometimes, when you kiss me, I want to bite you, not in a nice way, like... I want to hurt you, like... really fucking hard and make you bleed." Filmed in intrusive reality-TV style. Stark, and open. Mostly it's done in poorly-lit interiors, except for the bleak shingle beach where he skinny-dips to prove his truly, madly - but deeply-shallow love. And his ruminations tend to the equally banal ("5,000 people in the room, and you can still feel alone"), the memory-nudges instead supposedly there to indicate the peak-moments of this brief now-suspended probably-ended affair. Until she leaves for home. There's no tipping-point. No break-event, unless you count her unsettling interest in the stripper during their one visit to the all-nude 'Venus' table-dancing club. Leaving him to his laptop, her buzz-buzzing with her vibrator. And only the metaphor of a slow-melting glacier. As your attention drifts to trivia too, noting the sequence where they're speeding in an apparently stationary old Ford Granada Mk.2 (the speedo at zero).

It's kind of a Last Tango In Paris without the existentialism, a 9 ½ Weeks without the sub-dom psycho-fix. Its mitigation is its authenticity. The ruptured brain dead ennui of these two very slight characters has the flavour of reality. The taste, feel, and sound of senses working overtime. That's its legitimacy. That's the excuse for its licence. For these encounters are more to do with physical sensation than anything else. And they're too hot, too intense, not to cool down. It's too matter-of-fact random for fiction. To express this story without the visual sex would require richer dialogue, heightened drama, more actorly acting, a more structured plot. "When I remember Lisa, I don't think about her clothes, or her work, where she was from, or even what she said..." Me too.

Michael Winterbottom is a versatile director (responsible for 24-Hour Party People and Wonderland) who usually intrigues. And here he's produced a gutsily interesting if misguided art house failure, significant more for crossing the taboo-breaking minor threshold of sneaking erection, cunnilingus, and ejaculation into the mainstream. So envelopes get shoved, censorial limits melt, and - as The Sun says, "there's a new film that's putting the sin into cinema." To me, what's left comes down to a fuzzy blur of definition. When does graphic get to be pornographic? When is acting not acting? In what sense is putting someone's cock in your mouth acting? Unless you confuse the verb 'to act' with the verb 'to perform'... She's performing a sex act, sure. She does it in character, as Lisa, yes. And she's following the director's direction when she does it. But they don't put blowjob technique on the 'Fame School' curriculum, that's for sure. Margo tells The Observer's Andrew Anthony that: "the entire film was not a sexual experience for me, in terms of emotions or being aroused." So she's faking it? And he's also faking the hard-on and ejaculation she so actively induces? I think not. Meanwhile, the less prurient can edit out the sex and just watch the concert bits (the Dandy Warhols are particularly great), others can watch the DVD by themselves in a darkened room, and edit out the music...
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