Is This About You?

by Eric Francis

Still from Nine Songs

Photo courtesy of Revolution Films

'9 Songs' by Michael Winterbottom depicts something more taboo than sex: it explores the sexual psyche of a young woman. Indeed, to do so, it must first concede that she has one.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I saw the film 9 Songs [originally titled 9 Songs (Not About You), at least in the British press], directed by Michael Winterbottom. When it came out last spring, premiering at the same Cannes Film Festival where Fahrenheit 9/11 got so much attention, it was portrayed in the English tabloid newspapers as deserving extremely close scrutiny, the most lewd film ever, and as something potentially threatening to the foundations of society. Translation: was a movie with a lot of sex -- by all accounts, good sex.

As a lover of erotic culture, this got my attention. I trusted that it would be excellent. Many Google searches, eight months and four countries later, 9 Songs finally arrived in Paris, and I went to the premier showing here. I literally bought the last ticket in a rather large cinema, walked into the theater and was handed a Durex condom (part of a safe sex promotion, I imagine; I don't think the theater's owners were expecting an orgy to break out, but if one did, we were all prepared) and squeezed into 10th row. There, I entertained myself taking pictures of the blank movie screen waiting for this long-hoped-for experience of what I knew would be an actual erotic film.
The story is that of a couple having a monogamous relationship. They are in love. The story is set in London. They meet at a concert, they go home, they have sex. Their relationship develops. She spends a lot of time at his apartment. They cook food and eat it; they talk; they go out to more really good concerts; she smokes a few cigarettes; they dabble in recreational drugs a couple of times; they drink coffee and tea. They get into the occasional argument; they have their differences. But mostly they have sex and enjoy it, which occupies perhaps a quarter of the film's time. (Not, as has been implied, the entire movie.)

He's a scientist studying the ice in Antarctica and really likes his job; you learn something about that mysterious place, and there are some stunning landscape scenes, as well as scenes inside the ice laboratory in London. She works in a bar, which does not factor into the story.
The sex they have is loving, interesting and passionate. They are beautiful and conscious, though in many ways, reasonably average urban people -- however, and this detail takes them out of average category -- they are quite sexually compatible.

Yet nothing they do in bed, or sometimes in the kitchen, is what you would remotely call kinky (this is perhaps a matter of taste -- they do experiment with light bondage, which I figure everyone but actual missionaries has tried, and even some of them). They are of legal age, consenting, affectionate, tender and honest with one another. The sex that's depicted is far less physically explicit than what you would see in any porn film you can get for three clicks and five bucks, or flip to on a cable channel. There is no violence. Nobody dies. There is not one gun, gunshot, knife (except for cutting up vegetables), or drop of blood. No money is exchanged; it's just two consenting adults doing their thing. They use condoms every time.

It's starting to sound boring.
So why was 9 Songs made into such a big deal? Why did the British tabloids, themselves so full of derision for women, and so exploitative of the female body, and so intrigued by the sex lives of others, generally treat the film like the monarchy would collapse if it made it past the eager scissors of the English film censors? (I have no idea what coverage it got in the American press and I would not be surprised if it was boycotted entirely.)

Let's pretend it's not just because the current version of Western society is high as a satellite on its "sex as the only moral outrage" trip, which is just a drug that covers for the real moral outrage -- endless incessant warfare. Feigned offense around sex also covers for the effects of constant psychic violence inflicted by television, film and games, with which our children (and we) are pounded into the concrete every day. Let's also pretend it was not merely the newspapers capitalizing on the very sex they were pretending to be stunned at the depiction of.
And finally, let's not pretend it's because depiction of healthy sex hurts kids, who can't get into the cinema for this film anyway. Any kid who can use a mouse can see sex far more intense than this in an Internet cafe, or just by clicking the links in spam that comes into their home AOL inbox. Young people need healthy sexual examples, and they don't usually get them in Western society.
I think 9 Songs is a big deal because the film depicts something more taboo than sex: it explores the sexual psyche of a young woman. Indeed, to do so, it must first concede that she has one. She experiences sex as pleasure, and takes the lead in getting that pleasure. Not once does her lover so much as ask, or attempt to seduce her. She is in charge, which works fine for both of them; he just goes with the flow, so to say.
She also experiences sex as something that pushes her, and helps her open up and find out who she is. Over time, her experience of her sexuality shifts from desire to curiosity, that deeper emotion one layer down. While she is, at times, fairly self-centered, her encounter with this particular lover provides an opportunity for her to sense that self more deeply, and to really go in. She feels sex, and as a result, feels the passion and reality of her own existence -- and she's ashamed of neither. Sex changes her, like it changes all of us. And in the process, she becomes increasingly curious about herself, the spectrum of her desires, feelings and needs.
Am I saying the film was controversial because it's about a woman who wants, likes and asks for sex? Am I saying the controversy is because that sex is depicted as something other than meaningless? Am I saying the film is controversial because it depicts sex in a wholly life-affirming way?

Yep. I think our society is that sick; worse, even. But I am also saying that the film handles her sexuality in a complex way. She is not his sexual object; if anything, he is hers, but in truth, he's a respecting and responsive companion, a man who is a little older and with more experience, who's patient and can handle her intensity well -- and willing to hold a space for them both to explore. This is a space that she holds as well, with her willingness and need. For sure, he likes her, he cares about her, and he gets into the experience and benefits directly from her desire; she's not exactly on charity; not like she would need it. But what she needs is loving attention and a space to let go, which is not always as easy to find in this world as one would hope.
He's a good sexual match for her, at this point in her life: genuinely confident, open minded and friendly. His time in Antarctica seems to have given him a deep sense of himself; he works alone for long periods of time. He knows just where to go with her; just how to treat her; and he gently endures her youthful banalities and eruptions of narcissism. He does not get attached or glom onto her; he doesn't try to control her like many men with a hot young girlfriend would undoubtedly do. He experiences her. He enjoys her, emotionally, erotically and as a social companion.
He really likes to go down on her. She enjoys it but is more interested in penetration. So you see this all happen, you're right there, and it's not a big deal. The depiction of their sex is magnificent, always shot in low light with a grainy effect, but clear enough that you can see and feel what is happening.

Film normally has a way of disempowering its subjects: I think it does this by making them separate from us, in the process of presenting them to us. Somehow, director Michael Winterbottom has brought us into their space. Many of the shots are close-up; there is never the sense of artificial lighting or any other artifice that creates the plastic feeling that most commercial cinema has. (There was in fact no lighting tech present on the set.) The effect is to involve you in a way that is unusual for film; 9 Songs is an unusually tactile experience.

Somehow the fact that this couple is in the room with the director, camera operator, and a sound tech, is completely transparent. They seem perfectly alone, in a world of their own. By the director's account, and from what I could see, the sex they have is authentic. They are not acting; they are relating in front of the camera. They must have shared a deep, untouchable bond.
You can hear their encounters as well, in honest detail. There is no false emotionality created by a background musical soundtrack to distract you. With the exception of two scenes, music occurs only in the magnificent, highly charged but relatively short rock concert scenes (set in medium-sized venues with about 5,000 people present), or when they happen to play a CD once or twice. So the experience of their sex is a focal point of the film; and it's a focal point of their relationship. Their conversation is not intellectually stimulating, but who cares -- and whose is? Like many young people, they relate mainly through sex, but unlike many, they do so deeply.
The grainy effect and somewhat disjointed presentation of the story convey the feeling of a memory, which the film actually is: a memory told from the man's perspective, some time later, when he's back in Antarctica. Visually, the shots seem to suggest that they are suggestive, but actually are rather openly depicting of what they share; obviously he remembers. Among many other things, you see clear images of both their genitals. American men who get to see this film may observe their first specimen of an uncircumcised penis; male genital mutilation is still a common practice and big business in the U.S.

The two are not in what you would call a Hollywood-sanctioned romantic relationship. It is a relationship for sure, but they never once discuss morals, marriage, children, status, their next promotion, a new car, moving in together, buying a house, or their finances. The whole thing is not driving down the perilous road toward 'happily ever after'. He does most of the cooking. She thanks him. She has her own apartment; the two never go there, it is her space alone. She has a life separate from his. She has what we call, in current parlance, 'boundaries'.

When you take away the usual trappings, roles, expectations and games, and take away moral drama, you subtract the power aspect of sex and leave yourself with the pleasure aspect -- and that is controversial. We are a society that is still figuring out the difference between rape and sex, and which in general tends to favor rape. We expect sex to have a victim, to be coerced, and to require seduction and eventual impeachment. We practically fall asleep if it's not that way. (In an article in Penthouse, Erica Jong once asked, "Is sex sexy without power?" and concluded that it was not.) To go away from power and toward pleasure is to abandon the perpetrator-victim trip and gravitate toward compassion, kindness and surrender.

Most filmmakers would yield to the temptation to stick in a moral ending: this bad thing is what happens when you explore pleasure, but that is contrary to the point. The Man Who Loved Women (Francois Truffaut, 1977) gets off to a good start, but then the hero is hit by a car. There is no moral to 9 Songs, and it is not driven by pathology. Somehow it stands in another dimension.
That's why this film is probably not about us.
If you're a man, you were -- with rare exceptions -- taught by your culture that a woman is your privilege, right and property. You were taught to control her movements. You were taught, by various inputs from media, religion and elsewhere, to be intimidated by her sexuality, and worse, to hold it down. You were most likely taught to be nervous about the fact that she grows and changes, that she has had other lovers, and will have more still. You were taught she would take care of you, kind of like your mom. You were probably not given the skills to explore the depths of her erotic feelings, nor were you taught the patience to do so. If you did learn, I would love to know where, because there are exceedingly few examples of healthy sexuality available in our society, and fewer sources of sex education. And you would probably not be able to handle the fact that someone this beautiful was not going to stay with you 'forever' but rather is free to do as she pleases with her life. It is true that many men are waking up -- I am speaking in general, of an unfortunate tendency that still persists.
If you're a woman -- unless you had a brave and enlightened mother -- you were very likely trained to think that sex was something that you had to withhold from everyone but exactly the right man (perhaps the one who would please mom, dad or both), and give sex only in exchange for a commitment that involves security and money -- and to feel guilty otherwise. That was the moral even of "Sex and the City" (after all that, Carrie Bradshaw gets together with Mr. Big), and it is the message of Abstinence Only Sex 'Education' that is taught, and nearly mandatory, in 49 of the United States. The training to be a woman likely included the mandate of not revealing to others, particularly to men, that you like or need sex, much less directly ask for it. You were taught, with rare exceptions, that other girls and women who like sex openly are whores or sluts. You may have learned to admit your desire, though you were unlikely to have been 21; perhaps you got it some time between 35 and 55. It still may not be easy for you. And you were taught to stay in a relationship even if it's miserable, not to move on when you're ready. And most likely, money, emotions, sex and reproduction got mixed up many times, creating traps from which it's difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, to escape. Many women do make the escape, but often it seems to be at the expense of any viable model of relationship.
For both genders, we were taught that there always had to be a big drama about, around and because of sex: that ultimately it is a moral issue, not a personal choice. This is the crime. The message, for example, of the current agenda of banning gay marriage is that whoever you are, somebody else decides for you what is right and what is wrong. Somebody else makes your personal choices for you.

It is not surprising that, in the next act, we almost always fall victim to our carefully cultivated pleasure anxiety, and then Adam and Eve-style, God shows up and is judging us for our fun and we wind up in hell-on-Earth because we got laid. 9 Songs offers a break in continuity, and an example, just one example, of a new sexual context for our era in history: one based on level ground and the personal choice to relate one's own way.

I am not making the argument that 'traditional values' are inherently bad if that is what you choose, and also, don't bash into the heads of the unwilling; or that we do not have the right to wait to have sex, or that early sex is inherently good; or that marriage and family life does not work well for some. Obviously it works for some and not for others. I am saying that after however many years of progress you want to count, the messages being sent to masses of people, particularly to school children, are largely the same moralistic and masochistic ones as they have been for countless generations, and in many respects they are more shrill and threatening today.

And I suggest that, on another level, if you subtract all discussion of personal issues, our society's constant dwelling on violence is an attack on the inner sanctuary where people love, feel, and choose how to love and feel in a way that is right for them. Couple that with moral guilt trips and you have a real formula for a miserable society. Who gets beyond this? Look around at the people in your life and do a survey. Who has actual loving sexual happiness in their lives? What do you think it will take for you to have it?

Masturbation is depicted in this film, though it's her masturbation, and it has a symbolic value: that she is becoming sexually independent. Her masturbation is revealed first when she is alone, in a scene that begins visually exactly like their partnersex, focusing intently on her face and the sounds of her breathing and voice. Then the camera pulls back, you hear the vibrator, and you see she is alone, and responsible for her own pleasure. There's a mild shock to this.
In the second scene, she arranges to be caught masturbating by her lover, naked on his bed as he's making dinner, with her vibrator humming. He appears in the doorway, sees what is happening, and understands her statement; though he's accepting, he's not happy about the fact that she is becoming more distant, which is exactly what's happening at this point. The camera cuts slowly between his face and her on the bed. Very gradually, his face changes. The beauty, honesty and raw passion of what she is doing are liberating, and soften him.
She looks right at him and then dives into her own consciousness and lets go. In the following days and weeks, she becomes more erotically confident and curious. There is something more clear and assertive about her energy. The statement is implicit. She has a need to reveal her solitary pleasure to him, and to take her pleasure shamelessly into her own heart and hands. This she does. And then in response, she takes that much more responsibility for what she wants and needs from sex and from life, and brings this into the last weeks of their experience.

She's independent to the point where she can make the decision to move on when the time is right for her, even though they clearly love one another. He is independent to the point where he does not cling or complain; he simply respects her choice, and if anything, loves her more deeply for it. I don't feel this is an endorsement of transience as a way of relationship, but rather of being in the moment of one's own life. Their last weeks together, during the holiday season, are shown as deeply poignant, and the feeling comes across beautifully. They grow closer, and then let go of one another in an honest way. The freedom to move on is the same thing as the freedom to stay of your own volition, if that's what right for you -- not because you're supposed to.
Is it possible that her sexual independence is at the heart of the supposed controversy? That her ability to take over her own sexuality, and declare her erotic freedom in the presence of a man, and then make a decision about her life, is the central issue? I think so.

9 Songs is a visually and emotionally beautiful work of film, and it opens up a world of potential to those who may have not considered it, or thought it was impossible. I am very happy the feeling in 9 Songs is getting out to at least some people. The excellent work of the director and cast leave me loving love, loving life, and respecting sex as the magnificent natural force that it is.++

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