Feature by: Jack Foley
"IT'S a great book, full of explicit sex and
again I was thinking, how come books can do this but film, which
is far greater disposed to it, can't?"
So asks acclaimed British director, Michael Winterbottom, when
talking about his controversial new film, 9 Songs.
The book in question is French author, Michael Houellebecq's
sexually explicit novel, Platform, which Winterbottom had been
intending to turn into a film itself.
But when it became apparent that Houellebecq had his own plans
to do it himself, Winterbottom came up with the idea of 9 Songs
- the story of a young couple in London as they embark on a sexually
The couple in question are Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and his American
girlfriend, Lisa (Margo Stilley) and the story is framed by shots
of Matt flying over the plains of Antarctica, recalling the relationship
he had from afar.
The film itself takes the form of an increasingly graphic selection
of sex scenes that are interspersed with concert footage from
the gigs the couple go to see.
But it lacks any real characterisation, is seldom (if at all)
erotic and seems nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for
bringing porn into the mainstream.
It comes as little surprise to find that the film had no script
and that the dialogue evolved during the filming through improvisation
and interaction between the actors and the director.
When the film screened at last year's Cannes Film Festival, critics
were suitably flabergasted.
But Winterbottom insisted that the content represented a reaction
to the ‘prudish’ films being made at the moment.
And while it certainly pushes cinematic boundaries - given that
it features scenes of bondage, penetration, ejaculation and self-gratification
- the exercise seems particularly pointless given the lack of
any real substance.
Certainly, one of the stars of the film has since questioned
its merits, especially the impact it might have on her life and
Margo Stilley was found via the Extras and Model agency, Q Casting,
and had only done work as an extra before - she was mainly a fashion
Yet while she did everything that Winterbottom asked of her,
she has since confessed that the experience left her an emotional
wreck and now fears for her family's reputation and her chances
of finding love.
In an interview with The Daily Express, she commented: "Personally,
why I made the film is very difficult to explain. I decided to
take on the public and it was a huge risk."
The ensuing risk entailed Margo having
to simulate sex up to 20 times a day - although she insists that
she only had to perform the oral sex scene once.
And while she has no regrets about taking on the role, she is
furious at the press reaction, which resulted in the London college
she was attending having to take measures to protect her (including
changing her name) and her mother praying for her at least twice
She also has no idea how the footage might affect her future
husband and is determined not to let her children see it given
the stigma it might attract.
She is also concerned about the public perception towards her
and how it will affect her own immediate career.
"My reputation after this will be there for ever, it's like
getting a tattoo.
"People think I'm just a slut having sex on screen but I
didn't do it simply to jumpstart my career," she adds in
Needless to say, the paper has condemned the film as 'filthy
nonsense pretending and failing to be art'.
While others have been similarly dismissive. Total Film magazine,
for instance, wrote: "So, a skin-flick that leaves you keener
to catch a live gig than shag an aloof American girl? Something
While Empire concluded: "As an experiment, it's a failure.
As pornography, it's untitilating. The only thing that saves this
from the lowest rating is the music."
But the best review came from a woman, Lorien Haynes, of Film
Review magazine, who declared it to be 'the first film of 2005
that cannot be missed'.
She adds: "Most stunning here is the bravery of the two
leads, who commit to what must be the most vulnerable and exposing
roles I have ever seen."
It's clear from the reaction so far that people will either love
it or hate it. There doesn't seem to be room for middle ground.
And while I'm all for pushing cinematic boundaries, it has to
be worthwhile in the first place.
Sex has a place in cinema. Yet a film like 9 Songs blurs the
line between art and porn so much that you have to wonder what
Will it be ok for actors and actresses to have real sex with
each other? And if so, how far will be too far?
In an already promiscuous society, when will it be alright to
hold your hand up and say 'enough' without being dismissed as
Questions worth considering - but one which 9 Songs isn't really
capable of answering.
Editor's note: What do you think? Should Winterbottom's
9 Songs have been made? Is it a good film? And what are your favourite
movie sex scenes?