Real, unsimulated sex. Three words that will forever be associated with Michael Winterbottom’s controversial film 9 Songs. The most sexually explicit British picture ever made, 9 Songs was passed uncut as an art house film that showed sexual activity as opposed to being out right pornography. Full of scenes showing visible vaginal penetration, oral sex, erection and ejaculation, it received mixed reviews upon its release in 2004. And yet, I actually liked it.
I have no doubt in my mind that anyone who went to see this film in the cinema only went because of the real sex between actors Kieran O’Brien (Matt) and Margot Stilley (Lisa). And Winterbottom does not disappoint. The audience is first visually introduced to the two characters during one of their sexual encounters. The emphasis on the sexual side of their relationship is also justified by Matt’s third sentence of dialogue; ‘I think about her smell, he taste, her skin touching mine’. This is a film about the role that sex plays in a relationship and what can arise from it. Due to its explicitness, I get the feeling that this is sometimes overlooked and instead people tend to focus on the reality of the sex itself. Or the music, which is interlaced throughout the film by the different gigs that the couple attend.
Like any relationship, the film charts the change of behaviour between Matt and Lisa and how this is reflected in their sexual activity. Winterbottom himself said that the film was more of an ‘experiment to see whether you could convey what it is like to be in love by watching people together as opposed to creating a narrative’. Although not a perfect experiment, upon watching the film, it is clear what Winterbottom was trying to do. Straight away, we are thrown into the sexual aspect of the characters bond. We do not see how they met or how they got to know each other, just how they interact sexually. And we get to see lots of it.
Kieran O’Brien & Margo Stilley – Last Tango in London?
Matt is a climatologist with an interest in the Antarctic. As the film begins, he is currently working in Antarctica and is reminiscing about the time he spent with Lisa. And just as Matt is in the South exploring this vast continent, the human body is being explored by the camera, substituting as Winterbottom’s own Arctic expedition. Lets make this clear, the film is visually very graphic and has encountered arguments as to whether it can be considered an art house film or whether it constitutes pornography. Neither O’Brien, Stilley or Winterbottom consider the film pornography. I feel that its best left for the viewer to decide upon watching it. However your opinion, the facts remain the same. 9 Songs is the most sexually explicit mainstream film to date after being passed uncut with an 18 certificate by the BBFC. It shows graphic scenes of oral sex (both cunnilingus and fellatio), masturbation, mutual genital stimulation and penetrative vaginal sex. The are numerous scenes of penile erection, graphic vaginal shots showing labium and the clitoris and O’Brien is the only actor in a UK mainstream feature to be shown ejaculating. On being passed uncut for theatrical release, Sue Clark, the BBFC’s director of communications said ‘The intention of a sex film is sexual arousal. This is not the intention behind this film.’
This is where the argument for it being an art house film comes into play. The BBFC recognised that the intention of the film was to explore the narrative between Lisa and Matt which encompasses sex, talking to each other and their interactions with the environments around them. The board decided that the amount of unsimulated sex was justified as it was in context; the purpose of the film was to show the developments in the couple’s relationship and sexual activity happens to be a part of that union.
Despite all this sexual realism, most of the sex scenes in the film lack chemistry or excitement making them somewhat awkward to watch. During one scene, the couple have sex in Matt’s kitchen. Lisa asks him to ‘fuck her’ with Matt’s response being ‘Fuck you? Say it again’, clearly enjoying her dominating and demanding behaviour. Yet it feels so childish and crude, as if the dialogue is unnaturally wrong. There is a sense that, here, both O’Brien and Stilley are trying far too hard to be believable that they end up becoming almost unintentionally laughable in their delivery. The same goes for a scene in which Lisa tries to assert her domination by wearing stiletto boots and seduces Matt whilst he is tied to the bed. The scene is far from sexy. Stilley appears wooden, as if taken slightly aback by the role she needs to perform. Stilted whilst trying to be dominating in real life in bad enough but on screen it is just uncomfortable viewing.
Having said that, I do feel that there are some scenes in the film that convey far more sexual honesty and feeling. The couple go away for the weekend and in one scene are shown sharing a bath. There seems to be natural developement here and a real sense that they are a couple with a sexual connection, as opposed to two people having sex with no feeling. The two leads seem genuinely relaxed and the shot shows the smooth fluidity in which sexual behaviour naturally developes between people. Sitting either end of the bath, Lisa stimulates Matt with her feet, slowly working from his thighs to his penis. It culminates with her leaning over to lie atop him so they can kiss. It shows that not all sexual activity in heterosexual couples ends in vaginal penetrative sex and ejaculation. Instead, the scene focuses on the connection between the two and the greater picture of their sexual relationship. I wish that Winterbottom had included more tender scenes like this in the film that add a mutual sweetness to their relationship that can easily be mistaken as a one-sided love affair.
A rare tender moment between Lisa and Matt
A film like this was never going to attract big name stars and, in casting unknowns, it shows. Stilley is very wooden at times and, aside from her orgasms, comes across as very unbelievable in her improvised dialogue and timing. Being a model with no previous acting experience wasn’t the strongest card to be dealt. It doesn’t help very much that Lisa is incredibly unlikable as a character. Clearly not as besotted with Matt as he is with her, Lisa comes across as being someone just coming along for the ride and gaining as much sexual experience as she can. She has no problems in recounting her whole sexual history to a somewhat uncomfortable Matt on a weekend away and even hints at having possibly prostituted herself at one point. On a visit to a lap dance bar, she becomes more interested in a dancer than Matt and clearly enjoying the attention and encounter, refuses to share it with him, instead ignoring him outright. The look of dejection on Matt’s face is another brief glimmer of honesty in the film, whereupon he realises that she is getting more sexual gratification from the dancer than their sexual interactions. The fact that she constantly refers to their sexual encounters as fucking shows an emotional detachment.
O’Brien, although no thespian, fares far better and not just because he happens to have talent, if you know what I mean? Compared to Stilley, he is slightly more believable as the one in the relationship who’s in it far deeper than the other. He appears more honest in his fluctuating feelings towards Lisa, going from keen and deep in lust at the start to someone in love and feeling a great gulf between him and his partner by the end. When he says he loves her, she replies in a joking manner whilst a game of word association brings about sincere disappointment when Lisa answers reveal her temporary attitudes towards their companionship; ‘Ocean.’ ‘Space.’ ‘Desert.’ ‘Storm.’ ‘Love.’ ‘Lust’. Nothing says it quite as strongly as the look on his face as he watches her masturbate alone, she is unaware she is being watched, enjoying the strongest orgasm she has throughout the whole film. One in which he is not involved. Their disconnection is summed up further when the following night, he goes to a gig alone, the first one without her since they met. His own words; ‘5,000 strangers in the room and you can still feel the love’. He is able to feel a united love from strangers and yet he knows that the person who he feels most strongly for is a complete stranger emotionally to him.
The film’s trailer doesn’t give much away, not that it had much to work with…
So despite all its faults, why do I like it so much? Because, at least in its sexual depiction, its honest. Its nice and refreshing to see a film that doesn’t conform to Hollywood’s standards of sexual depiction. Not all sex is erotic and perfect. Sometimes it isn’t highly pleasurable and it doesn’t always last for hours on end. It’s nice to see a couple have a quick fuck and one in which there isn’t a massive awe-inspiring awakening in which both participants orgasm simultaneously. In society where the media is flooded by images of either sex as depicted in cinema or sex as depicted in real pornography (I mean films made purely to arouse sexually), a film in which ‘normal’ looking people have realistic sex is inspiring to see. The complexities of sexual relationships are often ignored too. Usually characters are depicted as being ‘in love’ or ‘in lust’, disregarding the fluidity of these feelings even in long-term relationships. Sex isn’t as black and white as Hollywood and the porn industry like to make out it is and so I like that 9 Songs has a relationship that is played out with some subtle nuances. Even if they aren’t acted out completely well…