Should something be done just because it’s never been done? It all depends on whether one’s priority is to be a pioneer or a great artist. Michael Winterbottom, one would assume, would like to be known as the latter; but his tepid film effort, 9 Songs, concedes artistic limitations in order to break new ground.
Yes, I said limitations. While 9 Songs pulls out all the stops by showing real sex (and up close), doing so meant employing otherwise unemployable actors. For this cannot be simply brushed off as a pornographic valentine to art-house cinemas. It required an inhuman capacity from the actors to feign romantic love during the act which, by nature, secures such a feeling.
Of course, on-screen penetration has been done before, and not just by the smut industry. Most recently and famously, Vincent Gallo ended The Brown Bunny with a brief oral sex situation involving a former girlfriend of his, Chloë Sevigny. It was an artistic risk that was taken for the potential payoff rather than the risk itself. And it has the effect of discovering your clair was filled with horseradish.
Sevigny made it clear to the press she would never have considered it, had she not been “intimate before” with Gallo. It was filmed on a set closed to everyone except the two of them, and in its unerotic context does not seem gratuitous at all.
By contrast, 9 Songs is a firecracker that fails to ignite. The skin is in lieu of dialogue, and perhaps, rightly so. Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley are uninspiring and unintelligent. Their love for each other is never developed, so the word, when uttered, feels chilly and preposterous.
They are not a real couple. Winterbottom dismissed the idea of employing romantically involved actors as doing a “documentary.” And they are also curiously incapable of the sort of flirtation one comes to expect from a romantic film. Perhaps their lack of chemistry was a way for the actors to establish personal boundaries, rather than conflating life and work.
Another reason for it may be Stilley’s tender age of 20 at filming (O’Brien is ten years older.) She’s a lisping Raggedy Ann doll, and a somewhat passive bedroom companion. She is the anti-Linda Fiorentino. A woman in control of her sexuality simply would not appear in a film like this.
Stilley has been spotted working at London pubs, while O’Brien was quickly cast in Winterbottom’s next film. If there ever were a perfect example of the veritable slut or stud double standard, it may be this.
If 9 Songs is an itchy negligee, another film that opened recently, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, is an ankle-length black skirt with a slit up to here. It was not until after the film–when my companion pointed out that it being funded by the Chinese government prevented, by law, any on-screen nudity–that I realized that never once in a dozen love scenes was there a glimpse of the actors’ bits. Despite that fact, the film generates a great deal more heat by using textures and lighting and suggestion.
What is a movie without smoke and mirrors? Just as we do not need a real firefighter to play a firefighter on film, we don’t need to see the nuts and bolts of sex on camera.
Joanne McNeil is a writer in Chicago, IL. Her website is joannemcneil.com.