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Sex and Drugs and Sex and Rock & Roll

Tartan Films

Two people having copious real sex in more or less real time strikes me in principle as either a porn movie or a comic failure of the artistic imagination. So I went to Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs prepared to sleep or laugh. Instead, I stayed to pray. It’s not easy to write about a movie as solemnly sexed-up as this one is without so much as a snicker: Is there anyone over 40 who can’t recite from memory a few of the choicer quips about the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris ? But there’s eros to burn and a woozy romantic nostalgia in 9 Songs ’ homage to sex, drugs and rock & roll in some unspecified recent English past.

Clocking in at a roguish soixante-neuf minutes and framed by a Londoner’s remembrance of his love affair with an athletic young American woman, 9 Songs has a simple enough setup. When Matt and Lisa — played by Kieran O’Brien, an actor with more than a hint of rough trade hovering about his craggy mug, and a very sporting actress-model named Margo Stilley — aren’t holed up (as it were) in Matt’s grubby apartment going at it in a modestly innovative range of positions, they venture forth to colorfully lit and eclectic rock shows at the cavernous Brixton hall where they first met, enjoy a brief encounter à trois with a lap dancer, snort a few lines of coke and, considering the workout they’re getting, eat remarkably little.

As British filmmakers go, Winterbottom is all over the map; he has a prolific résumé, but no defined sensibility. The honorable Welcome to Sarajevo and Go Now ooze middlebrow BBC-drama high-mindedness, while the good-looking period pieces Jude and The Claim hang heavy with highbrow gloom. His faux-documentary In This World, which follows two Afghani boys traveling overland to seek political asylum in Britain, is beautiful and humane. But his forays onto the wild side have been similarly uneven: The lesbian crime caper Butterfly Kiss was genuinely idiotic, though I loved 24 Hour Party People, a goofy-wistful nod to impresario Tony Wilson and Manchester’s pioneering punk-rock scene. From that movie sprang Winterbottom’s idea to use live concert footage (by the likes of the Dandy Warhols and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) for the songs in 9 Songs, which both mirror and comment on the passage of Matt and Lisa’s inexorably temporary relationship. The director also claims to have been inspired by Michel Houellebecq’s notorious recent novel Platform, but aside from the scads of explicit nookie in both, I’ll be damned if I can see why. Winterbottom is neither a cynic nor a nihilist, and it’s his unabashed lyricism that lifts 9 Songs clear of porn, even as his camera unflinchingly works its way around all available orifices both in and out of action.

If the movie is not pornographic, I wouldn’t call it art, either. Comparisons to Last Tango, so potent about sex as an expression of rage and inconsolable grief, are unwarranted. And I never grasped the symbolic or aesthetic import of Matt being a glaciologist — the hot/cold polarity is too obvious for an intelligence like Winterbottom’s. Nor, short of any documentary intentions, does it make much of a difference that the couple are having real sex in a largely unscripted, improvised movie: You can credibly simulate almost anything these days. Matt and Lisa’s sex life is candid and energetic, even enticing, but it’s not especially groundbreaking. More interesting is the way 9 Songs reverses the usual power relations of porn; in its way, it’s a study of male insufficiency. Matt may be in love, but the androgynous and more adventurous — and, you can’t help but feel, less likable — Lisa calls the shots, and it’s she who rings the changes on their relationship.

As the movie wears on and the music grows sadder and more lyrical (a visit to Michael Nyman’s 60th birthday concert aptly heralds the end of the affair), the sensual trip morphs into an emotional elegy for an experience that can never be recovered or repeated. There’s pathos and regret, even relief in that, but what you make of 9 Songs will likely depend less on your tolerance for onscreen sex, real or simulated, than on where you find yourself in your own life. I can imagine that many a viewer under 30 will see the movie as no more than an unusually faithful replica of what they themselves were doing last weekend. For middle-aged multitaskers sagging under the weight of routine and responsibility, 9 Songs may take them on a soulful, to say nothing of randy, journey back to a period in their lives when there was liberty, and time enough, to devote themselves to being nothing but creatures of desire. Sigh.

9 SONGS | Directed by MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM | Produced by ANDREW EATON | Released by Tartan Films | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7