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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Two obscure objects of desire

9 Songs

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Running time: 69 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Mike Nichols
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 21
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom has tackled everything from Thomas Hardy adaptations ("Jude" and "The Claim") to post-punk rockudrama ("24 Hour Party People") to the plight of Afghan refugees ("In This World"). With his latest, "9 Songs," Winterbottom embraces the sexually explicit freedom of expression trailblazed by recent European cinema in films like "Romance," "Baise-moi" and "Intimacy."

News photo
Clive Owen and Julia Roberts in "Closer"

The idea that sex can be integral to examining relationships is not a new one: See Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," as one example. But where these newer films have run into controversy is their insistence on real, unsimulated sex as their means of expression. Anyone who's seen any of these films will know that there's a certain charge and an effective honesty that comes from using the real thing. But as anyone who's seen "The Brown Bunny" knows, hardcore shots can be used totally gratuitously, adding nothing to the story but a frisson of taboo to help hype the film.

Winterbottom is an excellent, thoughtful director, so expectations were high for "9 Songs," in which the relationship between a couple is tracked solely through their sexual encounters. When we first meet Matt (Kieran O'Brian), the male half of the couple, he's reminiscing about Lisa (Margo Stilley) after their relationship has ended. "When I think about Lisa," muses Matt, "I think of her smell, her taste, her skin touching mine." What Winterbottom is getting at -- quite honestly, I would add -- is that in some relationships, the truest expression comes in the sex, and everything else pales in comparison.

His thesis is correct enough, but it doesn't necessarily make for a good film. Matt and Lisa shag, they go to concerts, then they shag some more. We almost never see the couple except in bed, or gazing at bands. This kind of works, in a didactic way, as the Anti-Hollywood Romance, but we're left hanging on the slightest scraps of offhand dialogue to guess what these two are like as people: Personality is the forbidden fruit. But that seems to be the point: These two have little to say when they're not busy shagging themselves silly.

News photo
Kieran O'Brian and Margo Stilley in "9 Songs"

Winterbottom certainly captures the joys of sex -- from foreplay to bondage and everything in between -- in some enjoyably shameless scenes . . . though the heavy hand of the Japanese censors is apparent. That's the least of the film's problems, though: The grainy, overexposed style of the film makes it look all too similar to old-school 1970s porn, as does much of the dialogue. The film's worse when it tries to get insightful: Matt, off in Antarctica (!) for work, looks across the icy void and remarks, "Claustrophobia and agoraphobia in the same place . . . kind of like two people in bed." Thud.

The reason for including all the rock-concert footage is far from clear. If the songs (provided by the trendier end of rock like Franz Ferdinand, from Britain, and The Von Bondies, from the States) are meant to be commenting on the relationship, well, the muddy live mix renders the vocals indecipherable. It's a sad comparison to Winterbottom's 1998 film "I Want You," in which the Elvis Costello song was central to the mood of the piece. Interestingly, that film was also a whole lot sexier without showing the full Monty. When Allessandro Nivola, bursting with jealous rage, slams Rachel Weisz, trembling in her black lingerie, into a wall as she eggs him on -- now that was hot. It was also involving, because it had characters that drew us in, unlike the blank duo at the center of "9 Songs."

* * * Character is also the issue in "Closer," director Mike Nichols' look at the complicated, treacherous love lives of four Londoners. This is one of those films -- think of movies by Neil LaBute or Todd Solondz -- where you walk out at the end arguing with your friends over which character was the slimiest. In a film featuring idols like Jude Law and Julia Roberts that is billed as a romance, no doubt some will be disappointed by this cynical tone. You misanthropes out there, however, will revel in this tale of manipulation and love gone sour; schadenfreude doesn't get any sweeter.

Jude Law plays Dan, an aspiring novelist who's living with Alice (Natalie Portman), a young waif and ex-stripper he literally plucked off the street. When he goes to get his portrait shot by Anna (Julia Roberts), he immediately falls for her, in a scene that offers no motivation for this action except for the fact that it's La Julia taking his picture. After a sole kiss, Anna rebuffs him. "I've got to see you again, you kissed me!" pleads Dan. "What are you, 12?" sneers Anna. (Law skeptics will be amused.)

Dan takes his revenge by impersonating Anna in an online sex-chat room. He arranges a meeting with an eager perv, a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen), and promises -- as Anna -- to "suck him senseless." The doctor shows up at an aquarium where Anna is actually waiting, and he asks her if she's the nympho, in words unprintable here. Despite this approach from a strange man in a raincoat, they hit it off and are married one scene later in yet another inexplicable plot twist.

Dan finally seduces Anna; Alice -- rejected -- goes back to exotic dancing; and Larry then proceeds to be the most cunning, manipulative bastard possible. The emotional violence and power games make for an intensely gripping film, but not always a believable one, as noted above.

Strangely, for a film that is concerned almost entirely with sexual jealousy, there isn't a hint of sex on the screen, although the language shows no reticence.

Nichols, who heralded the sexual revolution with his 1967 comedy "The Graduate," doesn't push the envelope here. But, as the director pointed out in a recent interview, "Sex in [a movie] . . . is like watching people eat. You're so essentially left out of it, you might as well not do it."

That's not necessarily a winning argument (check the dictionary under "V" for "voyeur," Mike), but "9 Songs" and "Closer" provide the perfect opportunity to contrast these very different approaches to sex in cinema. "9 Songs" is hot, but strangely affectless, seeming more like a conceptual exercise. "Closer" is cold as ice, but strangely compelling, watching how desire leads to disaster.

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