'9 Songs' sex scenes or no, British censors approve Michael Winterbottom psychological drama
Screenwriter-director Michael Winterbottom's latest effort, 9 Songs, has just been granted approval for release in the United Kingdom. Why would this be news? Well, because 9 Songs' sex scenes have created quite a stir, as they leave nothing to the imagination. And although the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has relaxed its anti-sex policies in recent years, it still demands that films be cut due to sexual content.
“People who have seen [9 Songs],” asserts leading man Kieran O'Brien, “even though they are forewarned about how explicit it is, come out of the cinema saying they can't believe that it's so explicit.”
That's why the BBFC's green light for Winterbottom's psychological/romantic drama – featuring O'Brien and Margo Stilley as lovers/rock concertgoers – comes as a somewhat startling surprise.
'Exceptionally justified' explicit sex
According to BBFC chief assistant in charge of policy Craig Lapper, “We don't normally allow depictions of unsimulated sex in an 18 film [no one under 18 allowed], unless they can be exceptionally justified by the context of the film.”
Apparently, the required “exceptional justification” has been forthcoming in this particular instance. One of a handful in recent years.
The very first English-language film featuring explicit sex scenes to be approved by the BBFC was Patrice Chéreau's 2001 drama Intimacy, based on stories by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) and starring Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table) and Mark Rylance (Angels and Insects) as once-a-week lovers. Intimacy was given an “18 certificate.”
Two years earlier, Catherine Breillat's sexually explicit French psychological drama Romance, featuring adult film star Rocco Siffredi, was also granted a BBFC certificate. Home video copies, however, suffered a one-second cut to prevent viewers from witnessing an ejaculation bit.
And in the year 2000, another sexually explicit French-made release, Virginie Despentes and former porn actress Coralie Trinh Thi's revenge thriller Rape Me / Baise-Moi, also received an “18 certificate,” but only after a brutal rape scene was excised from the film.
'Irreversible': Nine-minute rape scene
Curiously, a third sexually explicit French production, Gaspar Noé's 2002 revenge drama Irreversible, starring Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, and Albert Dupontel, was given the BBFC's okay – uncut – despite a graphic nine-minute scene depicting the brutal rape of Bellucci's character in an urban underpass.
On the BBFC's website, it's explained that “there was strong support for passing the work uncut at [the 18 certificate level], despite many examiners declaring the film to be both challenging and grueling.”
Irreversible was the 2002 Bronze Horse winner at the Stockholm Film Festival, and, tied with Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, Noé's controversial effort was the San Diego Film Critics Society's Best Foreign Language Film of 2003.
'9 Songs' sex scenes: How to handle explicit cinematic 'lovemaking'
9 Songs, which was screened at the Cannes and San Sebastian film festivals earlier this year, revolves around the relationship between a young couple, British climatologist Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and American exchange student Lisa (Margo Stilley).
Throughout the film, their intimate scenes together are interspersed with trips to rock concerts. Featured bands include The Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, and Primal Scream.
Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film BAFTA earlier this year for his Pakistan-set drama In This World, Michael Winterbottom discussed in The Observer his approach to 9 Songs' sex scenes:
“We wanted to try and deal with a part of the relationship which most films just avoid completely. Books can deal with sex in the same way they deal with any other aspect of a relationship but films just skip over it because everyone knows it's fake and therefore not really worth engaging with. The idea was to deal with the sex in exactly the same way we deal with anything else in the film.”
See further below updated information on the 9 Songs sex scenes controversy.
'9 Songs' sex scenes to-do: Sexually explicit drama outrages U.K. prudes
March 2005 update: In late 2004, Michael Winterbottom's psychological drama 9 Songs, featuring explicit sex scenes – in one of which the lead female character (played by Margot Stilley) performs oral sex on her (male) lover (Kieran O'Brien) – was given an “18 Certificate” from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). No cuts were deemed necessary.
British prudes, however, have been unhappy with the censors' less strict approach to sexual content, with one outraged conservative MP declaring, “It seems to me that the board have ignored their own guidelines and this could be against the law.”
Responding to such complaints, a BBFC spokesperson asserted that the 9 Songs rating “was given within the BBFC's guidelines. There is nothing illegal or harmful shown in the film. If people don't want to watch it, they don't have to go to the cinema to see it.”
'9 Songs' gets Australian release
People will also have the option of not having to go to the cinema to see 9 Songs in Australia, where Winterbottom's film had its X-rating toned down to an R18+ this past January – and where Rape Me was summarily banned.
The revision came about following a 3-to-2 vote by the five-member panel of the Office of Film and Literature Classification's Review Board, which is supposed to protect adult Australians from the evils of explicit film (and literature?) sex.
In its decision, the Classification Review Board noted that while “some” 9 Songs sequences “may offend some sections of the adult community, the actual sex scenes are justified by the context, narrative, tone and artistic merit.”
In the U.K., Optimum Releasing is set to open 9 Songs at 28 movie houses on March 11. Accent Film Entertainment plans to release it in Australia later in 2005.
Kieran O'Brien 9 Songs sex scenes quote via the BBC.
Michael Winterbottom quote about 9 Songs' sex scenes via The Guardian.
Margo Stilley and Kieran O'Brien 9 Songs image: Revolution Films.
“9 Songs Sex Scenes Censorship Issues: UK & Australia Surprising Decision Irks Some” last updated in March 2019.