9 Songs (2004)

Dir. by Michael Winterbottom

“It’s claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place, like two people in a bed.” Matt (Kieran O’Brien) delivers this line in voice-over after the fact — after his ex-girlfriend Lisa (Margot Stilley) has returned home to America and after he has returned to Antarctica, where he is researching glaciers. The threatening isolation of Antarctica, like Matt’s simile, feels forced in 9 Songs, a small film about intimacy, in its various shapes and guises. Winterbottom’s framing metaphor, complete with flyover shots of stark, white landscapes, is too heavy and the only false note in what is otherwise a fascinating and successful, I think, cinematic experiment.

Intercutting scenes of the couple’s private moments (revealed in graphic detail) with their trips to live concerts, 9 Songs explores that juxtaposition and discovers in it something of the human struggle to balance one’s needs for protection and individuality, on the one hand, and self-surrender and love, on the other. Anyone who has ever closed her eyes and moved in perfect unison with those around her at a packed music venue will recognize in 9 Songs the almost tribal spirit of its live concert footage. Brought together with shared interests and with a desire for shared transcendence (or whatever you want to call it), concert-goers are often offered a glimpse, however brief, of ideal community. We lose ourselves to the music, lose ourselves to the rhythms of the crowd — a respite from the monotony and narcissism of our private preoccupations. And, best of all, with no long-term commitment required.

Likewise, anyone who has ever stared across the table at a lover, aware of unacknowledged tensions but unwilling or unable to address them, will recognize 9 Songs‘ portrait of a failing relationship: infatuation, disillusionment, and escape. Like a contemporary Breathless — and O’Brien’s resemblance to Jean-Paul Belmondo makes such a comparison impossible to ignore — 9 Songs describes a relationship by exposing its most casual, least self-conscious moments. (I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s desire for Eyes Wide Shut to be about “the naked woman at the refrigerator door as she remembers to put the chicken away before she goes to bed.”) My favorite moments in 9 Songs take place just before and after sex, when Matt and Lisa are at their most unguarded — laughing at a bathroom mirror, relaxing in the tub, fixing breakfast. I can’t think of another film that gets those moments just right.

Which leads me to believe that 9 Songs succeeds where so many other films have failed, in part, because of its graphic sex scenes. Unlike, say, Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus, which features a brief penetration shot to emphasize the base desires that drive so much of human behavior, 9 Songs includes several extended sequences that reveal the complexities of any sexual relationship: the pleasures and insecurities, the playfulness, the self-gratification (at times) and the selflessness (at others), the awkwardness and the beauty and the joy — or, in a word, the intimacy. Friends and I who saw 9 Songs all agreed that, at only 65 minutes, we would have liked for it to be even longer, especially if we could spend more time with Matt and Lisa behind closed doors. Recommended (with obvious warnings, of course).

Your reward for reading the entire response: “Suddenly” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, one of the bands featured in 9 Songs.