Michael Winterbottom is one of the most important and challenging filmmakers around. Over the past couple of decades, he has directed a prolific stream of interesting features across a variety of genres, refusing to settle on a particular style and seemingly always working on a minuscule budget. But no filmmaker is immune to producing a stinker, and after a successful 2002 which saw the release of the excellent double-header of 24 Hour Party People and In This World, Winterbottom hit a grey patch with Code 46 and 9 Songs. He would push the boundaries of what could be tolerated in terms of cinematic violence in 2010 with the divisive The Killer Inside Me, but 6 years earlier he would test the BBFC's waters with 9 Songs, a film that may still be the most sexually explicit film ever to be released in British theatres.
It tells the story of two lovers: Matt (Kieran O'Brien), a British scientist, and Lisa (Margo Stilley), an American exchange student. As the film opens, the couple have broken up and Matt is heading to Antarctica to conduct research and reflect on their doomed relationship. He remembers their time together through the sex they had, and they had a lot of it. 9 Songs quickly falls into a pattern: Sex scene, concert scene, and then a trip back to desolate mountains of Antarctica. They met at Brixton Academy and share a love of live music, so between the sex we get to experience the various gigs they go to - the 9 songs of the title - shot guerrilla-style from afar over the heads of the audience, which is pretty much how most of us experience a concert. The sex is passionate, spontaneous and exciting, but love is much harder. As it becomes clear to both of them that they won't be together forever, they employ blindfolds and handcuffs to spice things up, but nothing can mask the distance opening between them.
Winterbottom doesn't shy away from explicitness. We get to see full penetration, oral sex and even a money shot - pretty much everything you would expect from a cheeky browse on Pornhub. But what separates 9 Songs from pornography is the complete lack of sensationalism. There is absolutely nothing arousing about the sex, despite the attractiveness of the two leads, and this is likely what convinced the BBFC to pass it uncut (it's 'art'). The problem with 9 Songs is that the idea is infinitely more interesting than the execution. This is an incredibly dull and repetitive film, made all the more of a chore to sit through by the two thinly-realised and rather annoying characters at the forefront. Winterbottom seems to be trying to say something profound by occasionally switching the action to the South Pole, but it comes across as allegory on the level of a student-film. The concert footage is filmed with the same grungy energy as 24 Hour Party People - one of my favourite Winterbottom films - so there's some relief to be found in performances by the likes of Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, if you're into that sort of thing.