Explicit hardcore sex has long been considered anathema to legitimate cinema: There's the arthouse and the grindhouse, and they're located on separate blocks. Granted, obvious complications arise at the prospect of real sex in non-pornographic movies, including problems with the ratings board and sheepish exhibitors, the unwillingness of serious actors to participate, and worries that it could be viewed as gratuitous or exploitative in some circles. For 9 Songs, director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) tiptoes around these landmines by shooting cheaply and on the fly, which negates the need for name actors or even much of a return on investment. More crucially, he solves the aesthetic problems, too: The bedroom acrobatics possess a relaxed, unpracticed intimacy that's authentic, lively, and impossible to simulate. Against all probability, the film leaps the high hurdle of justifying its own existence, but that's about the full extent of Winterbottom's ambition, and the whole exercise feels thin even at 69 (heh heh) minutes.
Less a feature than an album-length suite, 9 Songs unfolds as an erotic reverie in flashback, opening and closing with needlessly precious narration over aerial views of the Antarctic ("a continent of ice, a place where no man has been since the 20th century"). Now a member of the British Antarctic Survey Team, Kieran O'Brien recalls his brief but passionate affair with American student Margo Stilley in London. The two first meet at a rock concert in the famed Brixton Academy, and the electricity of the occasion provides a structural fulcrum for the whole movie, which seesaws between music and sex. Scenes from the couple's kinky sessions in O'Brien's apartment are intercut with live sequences at Brixton from Britpop favorites like Super Furry Animals, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Franz Ferdinand, which appear as both a nice relief and a punctuation mark.
Had Winterbottom conceptualized the sex-scene/music-scene dynamic more rigorously, rather than interspersing that silly material in Antarctica, he might have been onto something. Over the course of the film, the sexual encounters between O'Brien and Stilley serve as a subtle barometer for the state of their relationship, and their explicitness helps underline the way physical intimacy can express more than words can begin to describe. Between the performances in the bedroom and on stage, 9 Songs gives off plenty of heat, but the whole project seems half-thought-out and hastily arranged, hampered by butt-ugly DV photography that turn skin tones grimy and make the Brixton scenes look as high-grain as a bowl of Mueslix. When a film is supposedly about passion, there's little room for apathy behind the camera.