Remove the live concert footage and the nonessential (I hesitate to call them gratuitous) sex scenes, and 9 Songs ceases to be a movie and becomes a film short. There’s not a lot of story here. I can’t even call it a character study, because we barely learn anything about Matt and Lisa, the couple around whose relationship the movie revolves.
9 Songs, written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, is more of a love-affair snapshot, a memory vaguely explained via brief bits of voice-over. This shouldn’t be taken necessarily as a complaint. The boy-meets-girl story is one that can survive some extreme paring. Still, you get the sense that you’re not seeing anything close to the full picture. And if you’re the kind of person who likes a little conflict in your stories, there is practically none here.
Really, writing about the story is rough. Matt, played by Kieran O’Brien, is a geologist working on climate studies in the Antarctic. He fills his hours mulling over Lisa, played by Margo Stilley, an American foreign-exchange student he met at a concert in England. As the movie progresses, the couple goes to a lot of concerts and has a lot of sex. We never see them fight. We barely even see them have conversations. There is one moment in a strip club that provides some tension, but even that is mild, at best, and then gone.
Part of me wants to write this movie off, call it boring, slow and uninspired. Move on to bigger and better things. Pick an easier movie to review. The other part of me, though, sees something more here. There’s an honesty to the relationship, a reality that pervades the entire movie that I can’t just discount.
Certainly, it’s not difficult to see where some of that feeling of reality comes from. All of the concert footage is live. So are all of the sex scenes. This is pretty raw, and not for the easily offended. There is no fade-to-black, or conveniently placed shrubs. I’ll spare you the details, but know that the movie doesn’t.
There’s more to it than that, though. The actors pull off a kind of quiet comfort that you expect from a couple who’s been together a while. And the sex scenes are more than just physically revealing. A few of them give more insight into Lisa’s character than all of the dialogue combined. Unfortunately, not all of them do, and most drag on far too long.
Ultimately, I feel like this is a movie that needs to have papers written about it. Symbolism and hidden truths, philosophy and psychology, lit and art theory. Throw all that at the movie, but I wouldn’t call it entertainment. Watch it to see if real sex adds to or detracts from a movie. Watch it to see if you agree with how much story a narrative can have stripped away. Watch it with a purpose in mind, because the film doesn’t provide you with one.