The British director Michael Winterbottom can always be counted on to do something interesting. Whether it's "24 Hour Party People," his vibrant homage to the music scene in 1970s Manchester, or "In This World," a searing fiction-documentary drama about immigration and the contradictions of globalization, Winterbottom has dutifully -- and artfully -- carried on the British social-realist tradition of his compatriots Tony Richardson and Ken Loach.
With "9 Songs," Winterbottom seeks yet again to explore how far he can take pure realism beyond such conventions as story, plot and characterization. But rather than expand the notion of cinema -- as the recent, similarly iconoclastic "Broken Flowers" and "Last Days" arguably did -- "9 Songs" inadvertently proves just how limited experimentation for its own sake can be.
Here, that experiment takes the form mainly of filming a man and a woman having sex, over and over again, in unblinking, close-up detail. Interspersed with these scenes from an un-marriage are live performances by of-the-moment bands such as Franz Ferdinand, the Dandy Warhols and the Von Bondies, whose concerts, along with six others, provide the framing device for the morphology of the affair. That's about it: A man (Kieran O'Brien) and a woman (Margo Stilley) hook up, shag like rabbits, hit a plateau and call it quits. Pretty much like life, except most people haven't gotten to see so many good shows.
In press materials, Winterbottom has said that he wanted to eschew narrative in "9 Songs" and instead wanted to portray, unvarnished, what happens between two people in a relationship. For him that meant taking what is usually the stuff of sensationalism -- the sex scenes -- and rendering them with the same dull frankness as the rest of daily life. That's commendable but not enough in a film that, in throwing out the baby of sexual titillation, also tosses out the bathwater of action, growth, meaning or moral complexity. In "9 Songs," the sex leaves nothing -- absolutely nothing -- to the imagination, but it's as boring as the couple's idle chitchat, their occasional snorts of coke, their compulsive club-hopping and the male lead's vapid narration, in which he compares relationships to Antarctica. (Why he falls in love with the girl, whose sole dialogue consists of telling him what to do in bed, nattering on about a co-worker and complaining, is never clear.)
Indeed, the best parts of "9 Songs" are the songs themselves; as he did in "24 Hour Party People," Winterbottom displays an intuitive knack for capturing the contagious excitement of live performances. Fans of the aforementioned bands, as well as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Elbow and the Super Furry Animals, may want to watch "9 Songs" to see these groups in action (many of the shows were filmed at London's Brixton Academy). As for the stuff in between, perhaps "9 Songs" succeeds as an experiment in one regard, ultimately proving that sex and drugs just aren't as cinematic as good old rock-and-roll.
9 Songs (69 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated. It contains profanity, drug use and graphic sex scenes.