Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Real Sex In All Its Artless Banality - Michael Winterbotton's 9 Songs


When, against all expectation, he found himself in an arthouse movie (Anatomy of Hell), the porn star Rocco Siffredi explained the difference between his usual line of work and “straight” acting. In straight movies, he said, the actor was trying to show emotions. In porn, the emphasis was strictly on the visual. What you saw was what you got. But there was a trend towards explicit sex in straight cinema.
“It’s the new fashion,” the star of Rocco Ravishes Russia explained. “They showed everything you could do with violence. The only thing which has been repressed is sexuality.” Siffredi predicted that, before too long, a big star would shoot a real sex scene. He imagined a film like Basic Instinct, with “more sex, more organs”.
Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs isn’t quite that movie, but it does fit the description. There are more sex and more organs in its 69 minutes, though the film is a picture of modesty when compared to another recent work: Lukas Moodysson’s brutal A Hole In My Heart. Both films include imagery that would have been unthinkable five years ago, but there the similarities end. Moodysson’s film can be seen as an essay in degradation in which the audience is implicated. Winterbottom’s is a love story, though it is questionable whether the characters are in love, and there isn’t much of a story. He shows a relationship almost without words, focusing instead on the sex.
When Winterbottom couldn’t get the rights to the Michel Houellebecq’s existential erotic novel, Platform, he conceived a film in which sex was the point, rather than an incidental feature. He wanted to reclaim sex from pornography.
On an intellectual level, the director’s argument is easy enough to follow. Sex is a routine human function, yet it has been pushed to the margins of cinema. And, as films such as Anatomy of Hell and Catherine Breillat’s earlier collaboration with Rocco Siffredi, Romance, have employed erections in the cause of intellectual engagement, it was time, surely, for a straightforward exploration of sensuality.
It’s a fine notion, but not everyone will share Winterbottom’s idealism about the visual depiction of sex. Nor will they necessarily understand the intellectual distinction between pornography – where the display and function of the organs is everything - and art, where the organs are supposed to play sweet tunes in the mind.
Already, 9 Songs has generated its share of salacious comment. When it screened at Cannes last year, the female lead, Margo Stilley, asked to be kept out of the publicity. Needless to say, by trying to opt out, she unwittingly brought it upon herself. “Margo – the porn again Christian” was just one of the tabloid headlines that greeted her cinematic debut. “Mother of Beauty in ‘Real Sex’ Film Shocker Prays For Her ... Oh God! Oh God!” was another.
The newspapers had contacted Stilley’s mother in North Carolina: “What happened was they called my mom and she didn’t even realise she was speaking to a journalist. She thought she was speaking to someone who knew me in London. They said ‘Are you a Christian?’ She said, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian’. They said, ‘Well, do you pray?’ ‘Yes, I pray.’ ‘How often?’ ‘Twice a day.’ ‘OK, who do you pray for?’ ‘Well, I pray for my daughter twice a day.’
“So it suddenly becomes ‘I pray for my daughter twice a day’. And she said, ‘Is she is in trouble?’ And when momma says ‘Is she in trouble?’ she means like, ‘What, Lassie? Timmy’s in the well? He’s in trouble?’ She means: ‘is she in the hospital, why are you calling me from London?’ And they took it to mean to ‘Oh my God, what has this troublemaker done again?’
“I was like ‘Huh?’ because I’m not a troublemaker. It took me a long time to decide to do this movie. I made a well-informed, educated decision to do this film, and in that sense, my mom supports me 100%.”
Stilley has now had a chance to reflect on the experience, and – while somewhat chastened by the way she was misrepresented – remains proud of the film.
“I’m petrified of doing interviews now,” she says. “I need a Xanax any time I do any press. I found out very quickly that people are working for themselves in this business.”
When Winterbottom was casting the film, there was no shortage of volunteers for the male lead, but no one wanted to play the woman. Stilley, a student and sometime model, agreed to do it because she liked the idea, though she admits she may have underestimated the controversy it would cause.
“While Michael Winterbottom has made mainstream British films, this is an independent arthouse film. I guess I didn’t expect his name to carry it as far as it’s gone. There have been quite a few sexually explicit arthouse films in the past decade, and they haven’t gotten as much press as this. So I was surprised, yes. But, come on, I was as naïve as any 21 year-old.”
Her attempt to avoid publicity at Cannes was, she says, based on the idealistic notion that audiences should consider the film, not the biographies of the actors. “It’s not that I didn’t want my name on the film. You don’t just wake up one morning and go, ‘Oops, I just spent six weeks on a set and made a film’.”
The film’s male star, Kieran O’Brien, has attracted no such attention, though it is in the depiction of his body that taboos are stretched. O’Brien is a more experienced actor, and had worked with Winterbottom on Cracker and 24 Hour Party People. “I’ve known Michael for so long that as soon as he said: ‘Do you want to do this film?’ we had a brief discussion, I said ‘Yeah’ His description was: ‘I want to make a film that’s a love story, where one character looks back on a love affair, and all the sex is real.’ I think that’s one of the reasons he cast me; because I wouldn’t be thrown or concerned. Once I’d committed to it, there’s certain things you need to shoot that day, you get on and shoot it. But how difficult is it? Well, I don’t usually have sex in a room full of people.”
The shoot, O’Brien notes, was “fairly mechanical. It amused me with Michael trying to give me notes in between scenes, and him sort of … Ha-ha! Looking at the appendage. And then saying: ‘Look, will you put some clothes on?’”
O’Brien was not, and is not, embarrassed. “People going to the cinema see me having sex: so what? I’m not really particularly bothered by it. I think it looks all right.” He laughs. “I’m breathing in a lot, so I think I get away with it.”
9 Songs is a reflection on a short relationship, viewed through the memories of O’Brien’s character. It is, the actor says, appropriate that those memories should be related to sex and music: “It’s about the things that you remember, the salient points, which tend to be the intimate moments: the excitement of a relationship that’s just beginning.”
Nor does he believe that he or Stilley were exploited.
“There was nothing exploitative in 9 Songs. Anyone who didn’t want to be involved in it didn’t have to be involved. Also, anything that was suggested on set that anyone wasn’t comfortable with, we didn’t shoot.”
O’Brien has emerged unscathed from 9 Songs, and has already been involved in Winterbottom’s next project, A Cock And Bull Story, an adaptation of Tristram Shandy. For Stilley, a woman at the beginning of her career, the stakes are higher. Even if the worst happens, and she falls victim to the skewed morality which attaches itself to sex in Britain, she is confident she can reinvent herself. She also believes that the film, though explicit, is coloured by innocence.
“While everyone is on at me about ‘How could this girl do this?’ - she’s in control of this relationship. She’s with this guy and then she leaves him when she sees fit. It’s sort of empowering for women.”
She thinks for a moment. “But that’s not the bandwagon I want to jump on! I am not doing this for women’s rights. I’m doing it because it’s sex, and I think sex should be shown in a good light, and I think this film is monogamous and beautiful and sweet. I like that. The thing that I found about other sexually explicit films is that they’re scary. What was that one with the orgy scene at the end? Intimacy. It was really strange. And in Ai No Corrida she cuts his penis off. That’s creepy and really scary. This is not. It’s sweet and it’s nice.”
Sexually explicit films, she says, are “usually rape scenes or orgies or fade to black and you wake up with a sheet underneath your arms covering up all your bits.” 9 Songs, she thinks, represents “a nice middle ground”.
“The most difficult part was deciding whether I was going to do the film. Once I’d make the decision, it was just a question of waking up and going to work in the morning. But, before that, that was hard: wondering, do I really want to take this on? What if my future husband is a conservative Republican?” She laughs. “I’m going to ruin everything! But we’ll see.”
When his partner, Kerry Fox, appeared in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (in which she performed oral sex, but simulated intercourse), the journalist Alexander Linklater wrote a thoughtful essay in which he noted that his reaction to the film differed according to the circumstances in which he viewed it. It was a reminder that the vogue for realism in cinema can have consequences in real life. So far, Stilley has been spared such calculations.
“I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t have a husband, so I have no idea how that’s going to go, when the time comes to cross it. I know my parents aren’t going to watch the film, only because they’re not interested in” - she laughs and raises her voice to shouting pitch - “seeing me have sex!
“I know that if it was my boyfriend, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing his holiday pictures with his ex-girlfriends. I can’t imagine why someone I’m dating would want to see me doing that with someone else. Because, while it is a film, and it’s not real at all – it’s acting, completely – ultimately you’re looking at someone you know doing something.”
Insofar as it has a point, 9 Songs is about the definition of that “something”. In place of love, it offers infatuation: it’s real and it’s not real, but you can’t help staring.
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