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Shore Leave: Margo Stilley and Kieran O'Brien take a brief, fully clothed break from their active sex life in '9 Songs.'

The Iceman Cometh

Director Michael Winterbottom brings you the suspect joys of British sex in '9 Songs'

By Richard von Busack

THERE IS a certain type of critic who smirks whenever hard sexual content turns up in a movie. I so desperately don't want to be that kind of critic. Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs deserves to be seen as a nice try, rather than a repellent attempt to introduce porn content into an art film. Winterbottom deserves praise, not scorn, for trying to oppose porn's monopolization of how serious sex can be shown.

At a Black Rebel Motorcycle Gang concert in Brixton, the Antarctic scientist Matt (Kieran O'Brien) meets Lisa (Margo Stilley), a young American girl on vacation in London. They go straight to bed and keep returning there. Matt and Lisa's coupling is interspersed with eight other incidents of live music, including a solo performance by pianist Michael Nyman. Winterbottom shoots, low-tech and from the back of the room, at shows by Franz Ferdinand, the Von Bondies and Elbow. We follow the rise and fall of the affair, along with flash-forwards set in Antarctica after it's all over. That's presuming it's over—Winterbottom steals the last line from Woody Allen's Manhattan to keep the possibility of an open end alive. The visual contrast of a warm bed vs. all that wind-blown ice is beyond ordinary obviousness. If there was such a thing as a foreign legion for the South Pole, many a young man dumped by a lover would sign up.

Though the actors certainly give their all, they don't make an impression with their improv. Matt seems vaguely depressed—after sex, all animals are sad except for roosters, as the saying goes. Stilley's Lisa is scarily thin and obstinate, and she has a habit of kittenishly slapping her lover. When she allows herself to be tied up and blindfolded, she still orders Matt around. It's not clear if Winterbottom is suggesting that Matt doesn't love Lisa for herself but for how she makes him feel. Her desire actually becomes a wedge between the lovers. She is slightly younger and more into raw pleasure. Her needs outweigh his. Watching her insatiability with a vibrator, one wonders if Winterbottom prefers Matt's gloomy seriousness to her solipsism. Is this movie brooding: "How can she masturbate like that when the polar ice caps are melting?"

The layout of the film—exposition sandwiched against sex scenes—accords with the ancient rhythms of the porn film. This, even though Winterbottom has stocked 9 Songs with what Susie Bright has called the three essentials of successful erotica: women coming, women coming and women coming. Strangely, Winterbottom cursorily treats his hottest scene: when Lisa orders herself up a female lap dance. Here, Stilley starts to lose her glassy diffidence and look seriously aroused. But most of the scenes are left on whatever digital film has in the place of a cutting-room floor. Winterbottom is making attendance at the rock concerts equivalent to that other really ineffable part of life. It's just as hard to comprehend a really murderously good rock concert as it is to understand what happened during a volcanic shag. Unfortunately, what 9 Songs truly demonstrates is that it's just as hard to film sex as it is to film rock & roll.

9 Songs (Unrated; 71 min.). directed and written by Michael Winterbottom, photographed by Marcel Zyskind and starring Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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