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'Songs' is bold, but stuck in one key

9 Songs
Written and directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Kieran O’Brien, Margo Stilley
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 71 minutes
Unrated (graphic sex, drug use)

In Michael Winterbottom's''9 Songs," a fresh-faced young London couple named Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley) go to a lot of rock concerts and have a lot of sex. The concerts, featuring such bands as the Dandy Warhols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand, and Super Furry Animals, are real. So is the sex.

The movie thus surfs into Boston on a small wave of controversy as probably the first ''real movie" (i.e., one not aimed at the porn market) to feature genuine explicit sexual activity between fictional characters. While not a wall-to-wall boink-fest like you might find at the back of the video store or on the Internet, ''9 Songs" does show its young lovers pleasuring each other in ways I can't really describe in a family newspaper, and it lets them finish the job, too. And then it sends them out to see the Von Bondies play the Brixton Academy.

Winterbottom is nothing if not serious about what he does, and he has given numerous interviews explaining what he's up to here. The general drift is that moviemakers always have to lie about sex when they're making a love story, so why not go the other way? What happens when you include the sex, from soup to nuts, as part of a loving relationship?

It's a smart, provocative idea for a movie. I wish ''9 Songs" was that movie.

For the first 20 minutes, it is. Matt and Lisa are likably non-pneumatic 20-somethings -- he's short, with the open-faced mug of a young Jean-Paul Belmondo, she resembles a skinnier, ditzier Maggie Gyllenhaal -- and Winterbottom films them with artless fly-on-the-wall empathy. Between the concert segments (filmed from the couple's vantage point in the middle of the crowd; don't go in expecting money shots of your favorite band) and the bits where Matt and Lisa murmur sweet nothings into each other's ears and other places, ''9 Songs" captures something most movies only approximate: pleasure.

In particular, the pleasure of being young, in love, besotted with the mysteries of another person's body, and still unencumbered enough to hear bands all night while laying in bed all morning. Winterbottom wants us to marvel at the playful carnality of his young lovers and he wants us to see their banality, too -- sex is all they do because they don't have that much to talk about yet.

''9 Songs" makes this point, and makes it again, and then it makes it again -- nine times, if you're going by the concert sequences -- and even at 71 minutes, the movie turns into a haul. Matt and Lisa indulge in some very light bondage (it's about as shocking as kids playing dress-up) and other, more hardcore behavior, and slowly the relationship begins to founder, presumably on her immaturity and casual drug use. Occasionally Winterbottom cuts to Matt flying over Antarctica (because he's a glaciologist, that's why) as he mulls over the reasons for the breakup. The closest he comes to profundity is likening the continent's simultaneous sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia to two people in a bed, and, sorry, that's not nearly close enough.

The movie's like a mix tape that alternates the same two songs; it's ultimately too dull to be an outrage. One gets the sense that Winterbottom was more interested in the idea of making the film than in the idea of an audience seeing it and, if so, fine for him and save your money. At its most intriguing, ''9 Songs" reflects viewers' own attitudes about the depiction of affectionate, explicit lovemaking back at them with a fillip of challenge -- if you find it degrading, you owe it to yourself to ask why -- but the film can't get around the nasty fact that watching other people's sex is, long-term, pretty boring. It's all undressed with no place to go.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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