Some Like It Hot
by Lauren Kaminsky

9 Songs
Dir. Michael Winterbottom, U.K., Tartan Films

Not since Deep Throat have we had real porn that passed as a date movie. The proof is in the venue: while an art-house cinema is a safe zone for hand-holding, a porn theater is not. 9 Songs is one of the most sexually explicit films to play in mainstream theaters the world over, albeit with limited distribution—the inevitable triple-X ratings it will receive here and there will be indispensable free publicity. It will go the “unrated” route in the U.S. this summer, like Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, and it is destined to invoke tepid praise for its bravery—the euphemism of choice for Chloë Sevigny’s performance in Bunny. 9 Songs is indeed brave, but for reasons unrelated to cocksucking. This is a film that dares to take the demands of the genre seriously, even if the result stays firmly within the realm of pornography.

To follow through on the schizophrenic demands of art-porn is to tread on a mine field of disappointed expectations. But 9 Songs fearlessly soldiers on, without pretensions to be something it isn’t, and with such unapologetic frankness that even its pitfalls deserve generosity. Happily, it has its successes too.

With this economical DV portrait of a relationship through sex—structured around nine songs performed live—genre-hopping director Michael Winterbottom adds another notch to his already impressive bedpost. Winterbottom has a 14 feature-film oeuvre (plus one in post-production) comprised of romance, science fiction, war drama, costume drama, comedy, and various combinations thereof. Clearly, this is a director with commitment issues when it comes to genre, maybe even a collector who wants the satisfaction of exotic conquests. Whatever the motivation, make no mistake about his intent: this really is a portrait of a relationship only through sex. From the first seconds of the film, we are acquainted with Lisa (Margo Stilley) only through her skin and her smell, which is how Matt (Kieran O’Brien) remembers his former lover as he flies over the barren Antarctic. He may have loved her mind as well—the film doesn’t rule out a deep emotional or intellectual connection—but that’s not our concern. Later, we’ll find out that Matt is some sort of researcher of Antarctic ice, but who cares? The point is that he’s alone among the vast frozen whiteness, a stunning visual contrast to the close-up of sweaty sex we cut to after all of 30 seconds.

A generation ago, pioneers of graphic cinematic sex fought the good fight with films like Last Tango in Paris (1972) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a war that the libertines clearly won. The sexual revolution—and the second-wave feminism that provoked it—were imperfect, incomplete historical struggles from which we continue to reap the benefits, including a democratic feeling of entitlement to individual sexual satisfaction. Opponents of this individualistic whatever-floats-your-boat ethos come from the right on the grounds of obscenity, and from the left on the grounds of exploitation. The right-wingers want to keep porn taboo for the sake of impressionable women and children who need to be protected from nipples; whereas lefty anti-porn feminists (such as the late great Andrea Dworkin) persecute porn to prevent the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and children. Either way, women get screwed: With all of this well-intentioned protection, neither opponent of porn leaves much room for female desire. This undoubtedly explains why it is so unpopular to be anti-porn today; to disagree is to belong to some ancient pre-postmodernism generation. Individual sexual satisfaction is sacred, and there have never been more socially acceptable ways to float your boat.

Lisa clearly comes from this generation of sexually-empowered post-feminist females; Matt is just old enough to find it novel. Like Natalie Portman’s character Alice in Mike Nichols’s Closer, Lisa is a young American woman who escapes herself in London and finds an English boyfriend with whom to play house. The morning after what might be their first night together, which began at a rock concert at London’s Brixton Academy, Lisa gets up early and makes a lame excuse to leave. A following morning, he tries to make her breakfast, but she insists that he pay attention to her instead, sounding like a spoiled child. She seduces him with “fuck me” vulgarism so rehearsed that you can practically hear the quotation marks. The scene is saved from triteness when Matt takes over, moving her into the living room for oral sex just below a photo of what appears to be Mohammad Ali, accompanied by classical piano. The dappled sunlight from an adjacent window combined with a shot so close that we can see the pores and imperfections in their skin makes the scene terribly intimate and minimalist and sexy.

“Coffee?” she jumps up and says as soon as they’re finished, leaving Matt crouched in a post-coital fog. This shorthand is sufficient: Lisa takes sex lightly, she gets what she came for—it’s all just a game. The scenes that follow show her playing in various states of undress, whether posing like a cherub on the table, mugging in the bathroom mirror, or snorting coke and dancing around the apartment. We see her as Matt sees her, with amusement laced with condescension. She is 21 and charming, with the careless egotism of someone not living her days in earnest, a trait often found in study-abroad students intoxicated by the possibility of aping lives they wouldn’t know the first thing about living. Lisa lists the men she’s had from Colombia, Brazil, Germany, and so on—what better souvenir of worldliness and sexual maturity? Her evident pride is pathetic; “How romantic,” Matt replies. He may be romantic, but he’s also cunning enough to keep his more tender thoughts to himself—or, rather, to the past-tense voiceover that accompanies much of the film. During an autumn weekend at the seashore, he strips and runs into what looks like freezing water, then turns to shout “I love you!” back at Lisa on the beach. He may be in danger of hypothermia or arrest, but he gambles on the distance that makes it safe enough for her to shout back, “I love you, too!”

These supposed confessions seem as self-consciously borrowed from the anonymous arsenal of romance as their bourgeois kink in the bedroom, which gets no more naughty than stockings, stilettos, and massage oil from The Body Shop. Maybe they love each other, maybe they don’t. Neither Lisa nor Matt seem terribly concerned with such anti-aphrodisiacs as commitment and responsibility, but just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Maybe they have fascinatingly complex emotional hang-ups just waiting to be mined by pop psychology—and maybe it’s none of our business. Our limited knowledge of these characters is perfectly in line with our relationship to them: exhibitionists are rarely eager to impress you with their psychological depth, and there’s only so much we can learn about people by looking through their keyholes.

It is precisely this disregard for the internal lives of our heroes that makes the sex between them truly sexy. If we were privy to their insecurities, then as voyeurs we would carry the burden of that knowledge into the sex scenes, and while that is good strategy for character development, it isn’t erotic. 9 Songs wisely sacrifices the former for the latter, ignoring the knee-jerk compulsion to cover up eroticism with psychological characterization in order to justify explicit sex and make it respectable. This reflects an insidious trend in contemporary film toward conflating a film’s worth with its characters’ likeability, in hopes that deep characters make the film deep too. Whether or not we “like” Lisa and Matt is totally irrelevant to whether or not we can believe them as sexual partners who are authentic and human and hot. Pornography requires an absence of emotion in order to make room for us to project whatever we want onto to the film. And this is what Winterbottom does right where so many other attempts at art porn fall flat: when you’re watching sex in this film, you’re not thinking about anything but sex.

Watching pornography in a dark room filled with strangers carried a peculiar thrill; if at all possible, see this film in a theater. The effect on DVD is different, since nowadays we’re used to porn being something enjoyed at home. Attending a public screening of 9 Songs is a lot like being at a concert, surrounded by strangers enjoying the same private pleasure, a social activity that feels simultaneously cultural and sexually charged. It is precisely this erotic energy of rock concerts that Winterbottom successfully taps into by structuring his film around nine live performances—including Franz Ferdinand, the Dandy Warhols, and Primal Scream—all of which are so compellingly shot from the bosom of the audience that they feel every bit as sexy as the actual explicit sex. This is the film’s greatest achievement: by avoiding the temptation to pass off smut as respectable art, 9 Songs is so saturated with sex that even the odd, fully clothed scene feels illicitly, enticingly pornographic.