Tartan Video // 2004 // 69 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // May 14th, 2010
"When I remember Lisa, I don't think about her clothes, or her work, where she was from, or even what she said. I think of her smell, her taste, her skin touching mine." -- Matt
Matt (Kieran O'Brien, Goal II: Living The Dream) is a glaciologist working in Antarctica. He remembers a year-long romance with Lisa (Margo Stilley, How To Lose Friends And Alienate People), an American exchange student, while they were in London, England. Sharing an interest in music, they saw a lot of shows. They also had lots of sex.
Before 9 Songs was even released, controversy surrounded it. Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart) was filming his actors engaged in real sex acts and his lead actress had even requested that her real name not be used when the director promoted the movie. When it opened, critics were nearly unanimous in their dismissal of the raw, low-budget romance from a much-respected art house cineaste. They faulted the skimpy storyline and the amateurishly shot concert footage -- and those criticisms remain valid -- but they took particular joy in criticizing the sex. Those moments of intercourse, oral sex, masturbation and so forth -- not faked for the camera! -- left most critics cold and that was perhaps the most unforgivable sin of a movie heralded as the most sexually explicit mainstream film ever to come out of the UK.
The negative reaction to the sex scenes reveals something about our expectations of the movie-going experience: We demand to be turned on. We expect to get a thrill from seeing sex on screen and when we're not moved in that way, we instinctively know it. 9 Songs does provide a certain voyeuristic joy in seeing young, beautiful bodies naked and busy in the bedroom. However, there is an emotional disconnect between the viewer and these characters. It is difficult to feel invested in a romance involving characters whose histories aren't revealed. Aside from the sex, we don't learn what draws Matt and Lisa together. Other shades of their personalities are only hinted at and nagging questions remain unanswered. For all the buzz about the real sex in the movie, the only people who seem really interested in it are Lisa and Matt. And maybe that's the point. Typically, sex scenes are designed to make viewers feel the heat of the moment. Their intent is that we should experience the passion with the lovemaking heroes. This is even more obvious with straight-up porno where the camera is positioned as an active participant. With 9 Songs, we're left on the outside looking in. We're observing two people having sex and they're having sex for themselves only.
The camera records the lives of Lisa and Matt but it remains a detached observer. It's sort of like when other people tell us about their relationships. The developments may be good or bad, the details racy or mundane, but it's still happening to someone else. When things get hot and heavy for Lisa and Matt, it's in spite of the camera's presence. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind achieves some lovely compositions using natural light in Matt's apartment. The camerawork captures the action without making an obvious effort to find the most titillating angles. Bodies are positioned for functionality rather than posed for the sake of visual proof. Genitalia appear in frame as a matter of course. The sex looks real, of that there's no doubt, but the atmosphere of those moments is also convincingly natural. The downside of that reality is that without the implied invitation to participate, watching other people doing it is largely meaningless for us.
The emphasis on the couple's sexual activities is inextricably tied to the film's narrative point of view. This is Matt's recollection of his relationship with Lisa. The storytelling is sketchy but the film's plot structure does resemble how our memories often play like a best-of compilation. That his remembrance of their romance is explicitly sex-heavy is one of the film's most honest qualities. Think back to a close, physically intimate relationship you once had. Maybe you remember where you went on the fourth date. Maybe you remember debating the outcome of a movie you watched together. Unless it happened while you were inebriated, you'll definitely remember the sex. It's that physical sensation, or absence of it, that leaves a mark deep inside. Matt's mind returns to the sex not because that's all they did but because that was something real. Even if he never really got into Lisa's head, his body knows that the experience happened.
As a fan of Winterbottom's work, even I will concede that 9 Songs is a greatly flawed film. However, I do admire the movie for its bold, unflinching style even though the experiment ultimately yields a negative result. The actors' courage and their trust in their director really needs to be acknowledged as they're left naked in almost every sense of the word. The movie doesn't fully engage its audience but I am suggesting that maybe that's part of Winterbottom's intention. Even if I can't quite recommend the movie, I appreciate the effort of this different take on a romance.
The release of 9 Songs (Blu-Ray) under the Palisades Tartan Extreme label is a disappointment. There is just a modest improvement in picture quality, notable in the sharpness of the image and the richer colors. The apartment scenes are generally warmer especially in the skin tones. Shadows remain murky and the improved resolution doesn't reveal a significant amount of image detail. To be fair, the original digital video footage wasn't high quality and many scenes are illuminated by natural light through windows or the limited existing lighting of the location. When the lighting cooperates and effort is taken to purposefully compose scenes, the results look good. The concert footage is not improved in high definition. Again, shapes look sharper but the detail of distant objects is not enhanced. On angles that are too dark, the image is noticeably grainy. Furthermore, there are thin vertical bands of black on either side of the 1.85:1 image that are a minor distraction. There are two audio options but I prefer the 5.1 surround mix. It's only an average DTS-HD presentation but it gives the concert footage a fullness that almost makes up for the pedestrian visuals. The intimate apartment scenes are quieter moments and the clear audio does good service to them.
Palisades Tartan has not included any extras to accompany the movie on Blu-Ray, not even a port of the minimal interviews and trailer from the DVD release of 2005 (when the company was Tartan Films). That neglect coupled with the incorrect technical features list on the back of the box make this look like a pretty lazy effort by the company. Rent it if you're curious about the movie but there's no real incentive to upgrade from the DVD.
An admirable effort by the filmmakers, but it's still guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 69 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated