Director Michael Winterbottom discovered something profound and meaningful in the climactic sex scene of his last film, the dystopian sci-fi/romance Code 46. As his camera assumed the subjective point of view of lead actor Tim Robbins, Winterbottom gazed deep into the beatific visage of lead actress Samantha Morton, and her breath-heavy, ecstatic reactions to this multilayered meta-screw (fucked simultaneously by Robbins, the camera, and the audience) were sights to behold. It was a simulated sex scene as close to a religious experience as one could imagine and it was clearly the jumping off point for Winterbottom’s unsimulated sex follow-up 9 Songs.
Following the brief love affair of British guy Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and American girl Lisa (Margot Stilley), 9 Songs is a minor wisp of a work, a fleeting and hazy recollection of several rapturous moments out of time. It’s a movie structured as memory: Matt—a glaciologist—flies over the barren and forbidding Antarctic, all the while thinking of and philosophizing about the times he and Lisa spent together. Winterbottom focuses primarily on the couple’s sex life, intercutting the two lovers screwing with the various concerts they attend at London’s Brixton Academy.
The sex scenes are clearly filmed with progression in mind, moving ever outward from the characters until their organs take center stage. It’s less a clinical study than it is Winterbottom’s appraisal of the love affairs we have that are never meant to last: eventually it all becomes about the mechanics, with emotions petering away and finally divorcing themselves from our physical actions. Matt and Lisa have only one fight during 9 Songs and it doesn’t come at the close of their relationship, but rather at its central apex. Their subsequent breakup is a model of calm interaction where mundane words substitute for so many movies’ rampant emotionalism. It’s a different way of seeing a familiar situation, one helped by O’Brien and Stilley’s physical resemblance to iconic performers (he the bastard offspring of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Denis Levant, she a dead ringer for Breathless-era Jean Seberg) and hurt by Winterbottom’s frequent pretensions toward profundity (the Antarctica scenes, which feature O’Brien reciting overly sensitive dorm-room metaphors, are from another movie entirely.)
I wish I was more familiar with the music and lyrics in 9 Songs’ counterpoint concert sequences, as I suspect they are meant to comment on each stage of Matt and Lisa’s relationship. Yet Winterbottom has always had a talent for evocation, so even a novice to the work of Franz Ferdinand, Primal Scream, and The Dandy Warhols, among others, should be able to discern the emotional undercurrent of these scenes and relate them to the couple at 9 Songs’ center. Indeed, there’s rarely been a more powerful moment of slowly dawning sadness than in the movie’s final sequence: a performance of “Love Burns” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club where Winterbottom’s camera futilely searches the concert audience for Matt and Lisa, who are nowhere to be found. Absence, it would seem, is the bane of love.