There are few directors working in British cinema today whose output is as consistently interesting and provocative as that of Michael Winterbottom. Astonishingly prolific, he has been an arthouse favourite since the 1990s although only two of his films have crossed over into the mainstream to reach a large audience and garner commercial as well as critical success: Jude (1996) and 24 Hour Party People (2002).
Winterbottom’s latest film, 9 Songs (2004), has propelled him into the limelight. Its sexually explicit content has generated a protracted media controversy that began when it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2004 and continues through the process of its international theatrical rollout. Many of its supporters and detractors alike have centred their arguments on the ways in which the film is exceptional; that is, the way that it places itself in opposition to the accepted norms of filmmaking. It does so in both its subject matter – a relationship’s sexual core – and in the ways in which it represents that subject. In terms of its representational techniques, Winterbottom is treading familiar ground. In particular, 9 Songs‘ obfuscation of the boundaries between fiction and documentary – in ways that may give the viewer pause for thought about their own responses to the material on screen – has a great deal in common with its director’s earlier features.
Winterbottom’s skilful mixing of narrational modes is the most distinctive feature of his approach to filmmaking. His juxtaposition of different techniques and effects sometimes results in a synthesis of opposing elements and at other times lays bare their differences. Several interrelated rhetorical oppositions thus become apparent. These might be seen to include documentary/fiction, realism/stylisation, narrative/non-narrative, history/myth, heritage/modernity and pleasure/discomfort, amongst others. In refusing to fully reconcile these oppositions, he persistently unveils the mechanics of the filmmaking process. In doing so he lays bare his own participation in that process as well as that of the viewer. For this reason, his films consistently challenge and provoke, encouraging more complex readings of their narratives, and of the ways in which we ourselves engage with them, than is customary for commercially released English-language feature films.
Director and Team
Winterbottom began his career in television during the 1980s, first at Thames and later at the BBC. Initially trained as an editor, he made the transition to directing with a pair of documentaries about the renowned Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman: Ingmar Bergman: The Magic Lantern and Ingmar Bergman: The Director (both 1988). Several fictional pieces followed, including Forget About Me (1990), Under the Sun (1991), Love Lies Bleeding (1992), Cracker – The Mad Woman in the Attic (1993) and the BAFTA-nominated Family (1994). His years in television engendered some of the most important collaborative relationships that came to dominate his working ethos. In particular, Forget About Me offered Winterbottom his first opportunity to work with the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, whilst Family was his first collaboration with the producer Andrew Eaton. In March 1994, Eaton and Winterbottom formed their own production company, the aptly named Revolution films. Winterbottom’s relationships with Eaton and Cottrell Boyce and their mutual desire to transcend the opportunities on offer within the rigid hierarchy of British television led directly to the making of their first theatrical feature, Butterfly Kiss (1995).
Since the formation of this partnership, Andrew Eaton has produced all but one of Winterbottom’s directorial projects and together they have produced several features by other British directors, including Resurrection Man (Marc Evans, 1998), Heartlands (Damien O’Donnell, 2002) and Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry, 2003). Frank Cottrell Boyce has scripted five further features for Winterbottom: Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), The Claim (2000), 24 Hour Party People, Code 46 (2003) and the forthcoming A Cock and Bull Story (2005). The perfectly attuned sensibilities at the core of these collaborations have given rise to some of the most interesting and challenging works of their distinguished careers.
Whilst Winterbottom’s partnerships with Eaton and Cottrell Boyce have been the most highly publicised, he has also established relationships with several other regular collaborators whose recurrent input has contributed to the distinctive style of the films they have made together. Amongst them is the editor Trevor Waite, who worked on four television projects with Winterbottom and subsequently on all his films from Butterfly Kiss through to 24 Hour Party People. Production designer Mark Tildesley has made six features with Winterbottom. The composers Adrian Johnston and Michael Nyman, the costume designers Janty Yates and Natalie Ward, the casting director Wendy Brazington and the producer Gina Carter are just a few of the people who have worked with him on at least three projects. This greater than average degree of repeat collaboration makes the case for collectively generated authorial traits especially relevant and yet the stylistic and thematic commonality that exists across films whose contributors have varied confirms that the control exerted by Winterbottom himself underpins their shared structures.
Repeat collaborations with judiciously chosen creative personnel may have contributed to the maintenance of a highly distinctive style of filmmaking which has served to augment Winterbottom’s reputation as a director, but this has not been the only positive effect on his output. It is this practice to which both he and Cottrell Boyce have attributed their remarkable degree of productivity (1). Between 1995 and spring 2005 Winterbottom directed 12 theatrically released feature films (11 in the UK, and an additional US release). His next project, A Cock and Bull Story, is nearing completion and is slated for an autumn 2005 release. Such a profuse output is an unparalleled achievement in the contemporary British cinema.
Feature Films: Chronology
Winterbottom’s theatrical feature debut Butterfly Kiss was released into UK theatres in August 1995. Set in a dystopian environment limited almost entirely to motorways, service stations and motels, it charted the dysfunctional lesbian relationship between the violent and erratic Eunice (Amanda Plummer) and the credulous Miriam (Saskia Reeves). In so doing it offered up a portrayal of Britain that had not previously been seen on its cinema screens. Although the film garnered mixed responses, a couple of reviewers such as Derek Malcolm seized on it as heralding the arrival of a remarkable new talent in British cinema (2). Indeed, the film was to lay out many of the themes and techniques that would come to define Winterbottom’s oeuvre.
From the very beginning, Butterfly Kiss announces itself as a sometimes challenging and uncomfortable viewing experience. In its black-and-white title sequence, Miriam sits facing the camera, sometimes staring at it, sometimes avoiding its gaze. (Later footage reveals that the material is drawn from an interview in which she talks about Eunice, and that the title sequence edits together only the silences between bursts of speech.) The awkwardness that Miriam’s body language gives forth is compounded by the absence of a soundtrack and by the series of jump cuts. These anticipate the disjunctive editing of the following scene, which introduces us to Eunice as she walks along a motorway. The editing technique serves to disorient and discomfort the viewer, frustrating attempts to predict what will happen next. As it transpires, Eunice enters a petrol station where she acts in a highly agitated fashion, unreasonably convinced that the sales assistant is the woman called Judith whom she obsessively seeks. Cut to a brief shot of the sales assistant’s corpse on the shop floor. The tone of the film is constantly unsettling as Eunice’s volatility combines with a non-linear structure of shots in such a way as to ensure that the viewer rarely has any idea what to expect, in either spatial, narrative or emotional terms.
If the film sometimes arouses apprehension through its elisions, at other times it graphically delivers scenes that are both shocking and unexpected. A scene in which Eunice removes her top to reveal a body laden with piercings and heavy chains, which have bruised it black and blue, produced gasps from many of the cinema audience with whom I first watched the film. One other especially uncomfortable scene occurs much later when Miriam has sex with Robert (Ricky Tomlinson) in his truck. This act is already difficult to watch as it is abundantly clear that Miriam has no desire to partake in it and does so only at Eunice’s behest. It does not get any more pleasurable when Eunice clambers into the truck and bludgeons him to death mid coitus. Although such scenes render the film intermittently shocking, throughout the film there runs a thread of universal themes that sometimes encourage engagement and identification even whilst individual moments temporarily repel.
Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce characterises the theme of Butterfly Kiss as spiritual despair (3). This is a theme that will recur in several of Winterbottom’s features, whether they are scripted by Cottrell Boyce or not. The theme is most apparent in Eunice’s belief that God must have stopped noticing her, or else He would surely see her killing people and do something to prevent it. Such despair is also apparent in Miriam’s life and it is the basis of her attachment to Eunice. The gradation between their degrees of desolation and the extent to which an audience might reasonably be expected to identify with each of them is clearly symbolised by their nicknames: “Mi” and “Eu”, or “me” and “you”. If the narrative may be seen to be centred on these two characters, it may equally be thought of as being defined by the environment they inhabit. The idea that both personal identity and life choices derive significantly from one’s surroundings is another theme that permeates many of Winterbottom’s later films. It is, moreover, a notion that can help to explain (and even justify) a range of behaviours to which an audience might otherwise find it difficult to relate.
Butterfly Kiss was followed by Go Now (1995), which was the production debut of Revolution Films. This was a proficiently executed but largely unremarkable feature that was made for BBC television, although it was granted a small theatrical release in the United States. It too, dealt with the theme of despair, as an active young man, Nick (Robert Carlyle), struggles to come to terms with the diagnosis of a debilitating medical condition. For the most part, Go Now conforms to the standards of television drama. This is manifested in both the popular TV-movie theme of learning to live with serious illness and in the dominantly conservative visual style. Nevertheless, a couple of features set it apart from the rest of the genre. In particular, its recurrent device of narrating scenes through a sequence of still photographs, capped with humorous subtitles, reveal Winterbottom’s growing proclivity for drawing on mixed media in order to tell his tale. It also displays an unusually mature and frank portrayal of sex. The several sex scenes play an integral role in portraying the growing intimacy between Nick and his partner Karen (Juliet Aubrey). Similarly, the sex between Karen and her boss Charlie (Sean Rocks) eloquently expresses the differences between this relationship and the one that she enjoys with Nick.
Jude, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s bleak novel Jude the Obscure, saw a return to big-screen filmmaking and was, arguably, the first of Winterbottom’s films to gear its style towards this medium. Its literary origins might seem to suggest a film entrenched in the traditions of British costume drama. However, any such expectations were confounded by Winterbottom’s creation of a work that challenged generic norms and tested the boundaries of the content deemed acceptable for the middle-aged middle class audiences that are the genre’s mainstay.
In particular, Jude‘s similarities with Butterfly Kiss are striking. Here again, Winterbottom explores the theme of spiritual despair and, again, the choices available to the characters are shown to be defined by their environment. The austere landscape consequently plays an important role in the film’s visual scheme. Jude also centres on a relationship that is unable to endure within the framework of the society the characters inhabit. As we shall see, in its exploration of a relationship beaten down by the strictures of church and society it also anticipates Code 46.
It is not only in its themes that Jude can be seen to exhibit features characteristic of Winterbottom’s cinema however. Like Butterfly Kiss, it includes moments of visual shock which are a far cry from the conventions of British costume drama. Two scenes are especially visceral. The first involves the graphic slaughter of a pig, which seems designed to discomfort the audience as much as it does Jude (Christopher Eccleston). The other shows Sue (Kate Winslet) giving birth, during which the camera points directly at her bloodied vagina. Other moments also hark back to Butterfly Kiss, such as a sequence in which Sue is viewed through a series of rapid jump cuts. Like Butterfly Kiss, it also begins in black and white, a device Winterbottom used again to open his next feature, Welcome to Sarajevo. Elsewhere, we find stylistic echoes of Go Now in the use of unabashed depictions of sex to express the emotional engagement at the heart of its central relationship.
Welcome to Sarajevo continued to challenge the conventions of genre and mainstream narrational form. Adapted from the book Natasha’s Story by the war correspondent Michael Nicholson, it documented his experiences in Bosnia and the events surrounding his adoption of a child from an orphanage there. The film mixes fact and fiction – Michael Nicholson is renamed Michael Henderson – but whilst it sometimes works to conceal the differences between historical facts and their representation as an entertainment narrative, elsewhere it highlights the tensions and contradictions inherent in this process. This process emerges through an admixture of fictional and documentary footage, as well as the incorporation of film styles borrowed variously from commercial fictional cinema, reportage and the lyrical stylisation most commonly associated with European art cinema.
In many ways Welcome to Sarajevo fits readily with the conventions of mainstream filmmaking. This model can be seen in its casting of Hollywood stars, its linear narrative trajectory and the way that it uses music to solicit emotional responses. Nevertheless, in many places it mimics documentary cinema. The use of typewritten intertitles to provide exposition is one technique by which it does so. Its use of a juddering handheld camera in some scenes, such as the arrival of the reporters at the scene of a bomb blast, is another. These different styles are never fully integrated. Indeed, there are places in which Winterbottom stresses emphatically the way that events are transformed into images for the viewer’s consumption. This is made especially clear in a sequence that cuts back and forth between high quality 35mm images and low-resolution, pixelated footage of the same source material.
I Want You (1998) saw a return to an intrinsically British milieu. In this loosely plotted thriller set in a British seaside town, the relationships between characters are given a higher importance than the slender and disjunctive narrative flow. As in the films that came before it, the environment the characters inhabit partakes significantly in the situations portrayed. Although they are realistically depicted up to a point, in some sequences the film is intensely stylised. This is most noticeable in the repeated use of coloured filters.
The following year, Winterbottom shot two films back to back: With or Without You (1998) and Wonderland (1998). With or Without You was made primarily for television but was granted a limited release in its home territory. A romantic comedy, it centred on the attempts of a married couple Rosie (Dervla Kirwan) and Vincent (Christopher Eccleston) to conceive a child. Their relationship is complicated by their respective involvements with Benoit (Yvan Attal) and Cathy (Julie Graham) but the eventual arrival of a baby signals the resolution of their marital difficulties. The film did little to develop Winterbottom’s directorial repertoire, although its frequent stylistic flourishes embody the director’s ongoing resistance to presenting a narrative in a strictly conventional way. These include a multitude of split-screens, frames-within-frames, irises and wipes.
Wonderland is a more significant entry in its director’s filmography, which developed further some of its predecessors’ themes and styles. It centres on the intersecting everyday events in the lives of three sisters living in London. The location is as important to the film as any individual character and its title can be seen as a fitting description of both the physical and psychological worlds its characters inhabit. Arguably one of Winterbottom’s most accomplished works, Wonderland is as remarkable for its visual style as it is for its expert central performances. The look of the film must be credited in part to the participation of the cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, making his first collaboration with Winterbottom. This was also Bobbitt’s first involvement in a fiction film, as his previous experience was centred on newsreel and documentary material. His familiarity with this field is readily apparent, although it does not wholly define the film’s visual scheme. The grainy 16mm footage is indeed emblematic of documentary filmmaking, but use of the highly colour-sensitive Ektachrome Super 8 stock contributes more unusual effects elsewhere. Indeed the film introduced a range of new stylistic elements that merged with those established in Winterbottom’s previous films and resulted in a startling mingling of realism and impressionism.
One of Wonderland‘s most striking visual features is the astonishing beauty of the colour-drenched shots of London at night. Slow motion and time lapse effects combine with Michael Nyman’s haunting score to give an impressionistic feel as Nadia (Gina McKee) moves through a landscape that is at once familiar and strange. In other sequences, documentary style shooting is used to film authentic people and locations. “We put the characters among real people in London to be more true to the place”, explained Winterbottom. “The café where [Nadia] works is just this little café in Soho. We didn’t do any design to it. The other people that worked there were the real people who worked there, the people who are in the film are people who came in that day to have lunch.” (4) In a bingo hall scene, the camera makes a leisured study of the range of different faces present. In many scenes, such as a back garden fireworks display, the handheld camera swings around to capture various people and details, much in the style of a home video. The film also includes fictional scenes that capture realistic details absent from most cinematic fictions. As is normal for Winterbottom, the sex scenes are credible in their awkwardness. An absence of music foregrounds the sounds of kissing and rustling fabric in the scene between Nadia and Tim (Stuart Townsend), and their assignation concludes with Nadia inelegantly clambering back into her thick tights.
The looseness of the film’s overall structure also participates in the impression that we are being treated to a visually stylised account of the lives of real people. Frank Cottrell Boyce has commented on his own liking for this technique, noting of his screenplays for Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People, “Characters disappear then reappear unexpectedly, or make a huge splash and never turn up again. I love films that float like that. They exist more in the present tense somehow, because you can’t see where they’re going.” (5) Wonderland, which was penned by another writer, Laurence Coriat, is one of several films that show the extent to which Winterbottom shares this ethos, so that it features in many of his projects and not just those on which he collaborated with Cottrell Boyce.
Both Welcome to Sarajevo and Wonderland were initially envisaged as being structured even more loosely than they came to be in their final form; Sarajevo was intended to present a series of short stories in separate chapters whilst the characters of Wonderland were first thought of as being related only by geography and not by family ties (6). As the script for Wonderland developed, a greater narrative unity was adopted, which was supported by some fairly standard narrational devices. In particular, a dramatic coincidence brings all the characters together in a hospital at the end of the film. At this point the movie slides into a sentimentality that is focused on the birth of Molly’s (Molly Parker) child. The use of the baby as a dramatic device echoes the use of the orphanage children in Welcome to Sarajevo as well as the conclusion to With or Without You.
With his next film, The Claim (2000), Winterbottom entered new territory as he embarked on his first big budget production. Costing an estimated £12 million (more than double his previous maximum) The Claim was a loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was relocated across the Atlantic to the gold rush. The combination of the logistical difficulties that arose from shooting in snowy mountains and the external pressures that resulted from the higher budget made this project an arduous experience. Although it is a highly accomplished film, it exhibits less of Winterbottom’s key traits than do his other movies. The onerous struggles for creative control over big budget filmmaking led Winterbottom to return to more modest projects thereafter. Indeed, his later involvement with another costly project, Goal!, ended in his departure from the film with news reports citing creative differences. (The film is currently in the process of being completed by the less idiosyncratic Danny Cannon.) Other high cost projects to which Winterbottom’s name was at one time linked include Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997), The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallström, 1999) and Freedomland (Joe Roth, ETA 2006) but these too fell by the wayside (7).
The Claim was followed by 24 Hour Party People. This may have lacked the logistical nightmares of its predecessor, but it is without doubt one of Winterbottom’s most ambitiously designed and executed projects. The montage of interrelated short stories that Welcome to Sarajevo abandoned during the development process, and which emerged in a watered down version in Wonderland, is impressively realised here. Cottrell Boyce’s complex script toes the line between structure and chaos and Winterbottom does well to synthesise its different elements. Documenting the “Madchester” music scene of Britain in the 1980s, 24 Hour Party People has, like Welcome to Sarajevo, a factual basis with which the filmmakers play fast and loose. Like that earlier film, it draws attention to the processes of transforming real people and events into an entertainment film but articulates them in more unusual and sophisticated ways.
The disparate characters and events find some coherence in the way that they are structured around the figure of record producer and club owner Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). The real Wilson described his character’s role as “sort of like the Rovers Return… everything in Coronation Street [a popular English soap opera] revolves around the pub, and that’s me. I’m the pub.” (8) Nevertheless, the narration is far from straightforward, even where Wilson is concerned. At one stage a scene occurs between Wilson and a wife and child whom we have not previously encountered. “OK”, says Wilson in a voiceover. “I should have found time to tell you earlier. I did have children with my second wife Hilary… but this is not a film about me. I am not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be. I’m a minor character in my own story. This is a film about the music…”
This scene is just one example of the way in which the film is consistently self-referential. Characters often speak to the camera. The first occasion on which this occurs is in the pre-title sequence, so that the sensibility is established from the outset. Wilson’s narration plays a particularly important role in the extent to which it describes the film’s methodologies as well as providing information about the differences between the film’s factual basis and the liberties taken in reconstructing events. He also points out some of the many celebrity cameos in the film in a speech that is accompanied by a montage of clips. The last of these scenes, he says paradoxically, “didn’t actually make it to the final cut. I’m sure it will be on the DVD.” Wilson is not the only figure to address the audience, however. One comic scene shows the musician Howard Devoto (Martin Hancock) fornicating with Wilson’s first wife Lindsay (Shirley Henderson) in a club toilet. At the same time, a cleaner, played by the real Devoto, tells us that he has no recollection of such an event ever having taken place.
In 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom incorporates a wider range of stylistic techniques than he had previously employed in any one film. As in Sarajevo, reconstructions are mixed with archive footage, but other more unexpected techniques are also incorporated. These sometimes appear in the form of subjective sequences. At one stage the characters watch in awe as a spaceship descends, with ‘Be-Z’ written on its undercarriage. Wilson’s voiceover then introduces Bez (Chris Coghill), “a great chemist… his favourite chemical was ecstasy.” On another occasion God offers Wilson some business advice, including the observation that he was right to pass over Mick Hucknall but should have signed The Smiths. In the range of its techniques, 24 Hour Party People exemplifies the delicate balance of opposing traits that had already emerged as a clear authorial mark in Winterbottom’s earlier work. Documentary and fictional footage, historical and mythological representations, narrative and non-narrative impulses, realism and stylisation: all these can be found in his other films but never so brilliantly synthesised as they are here.
In This World (2002) returned to the territory of the made-primarily-for-television movie, but in a less conservative manner than before. Although it drew on some established traditions of television docudrama in its depiction of two asylum seekers journeying to the United Kingdom, its rich and varied film style had more in common with the films that were designed for a wider theatrical release. The film to which it bears the most obvious similarities is Welcome to Sarajevo, in so far as its political message is expressed through a depiction of the way that political situations impact on the individual. This strategy attracted criticisms from some (9) but, in its focus on individuals and their interpersonal relationships, it is entirely consistent with the more successful aspects of films such as Butterfly Kiss, The Claim and Wonderland.
The importance of the film’s setting in defining the characters’ situation also continues a consistent trait. Moreover, in the extent that its protagonists become rootless, and incessantly engaged in travelling, it bears close relation to Miriam and Eunice’s endless circling of the motorways in Butterfly Kiss, as well as to the director’s subsequent feature, Code 46. The difference here is that the asylum seekers Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) and Enayat (Enayatullah) are working towards a destination whilst elsewhere the characters’ relentless travel is undertaken precisely because they not only have no place in the world but cannot reasonably envisage one.
In This World also partakes in Winterbottom’s predisposition to blur the boundaries of fact and fiction. Its lead characters are named after the actors that play them. In many respects it apes the style of genuine documentary filmmaking. It makes extensive use of improvised dialogue which, spoken in Farsi – a language not understood by the director – was fully interpreted only during the post-production process. Conversations are often protracted and banal. Extensive use is made of handheld camera, and night-time scenes result in low-quality images. One night sequence is even presented in the form of black and white infrared footage. Additionally, the use of such devices as voiceover, expository titles and animated maps further suggest the verity of the material, especially in the flood of statistics about food rations, people trafficking and so forth.
Watching the film, it is difficult to keep in mind that the specific events portrayed are, indeed, fictional, even whilst they seek to represent widespread experience. In particular, the ending of the film gives the impression that a true story has been told. It concludes with a scene of Jamal praying in an English mosque, which is followed by a title stating: “On the 9th August 2002 the asylum application of Jamal Udin Torabi was refused. He was however granted exceptional leave to enter and is now living in London. He will have to leave Britain the day before his eighteenth birthday.” No clarification is offered as to whether this precisely detailed information refers to the actor or to the character who is his namesake.
In Code 46 (2003) Winterbottom turned his hand to yet another genre: this time, science fiction. Although this might seem a far cry from his previous projects, in both its themes and its visual design the film had a great deal in common with several of them. Its narrative centres upon the relationship between William (Tim Robbins) and Maria (Samantha Morton) who inhabit a totalitarian society of the near future. In a genetically engineered population, Maria’s genetic likeness to William’s mother means that their romance violates a code designed to prohibit incestuous activity. Their attempts to circumvent this law encourage them to try to escape using forged travel permits. This impulse to protect their relationship by making a fresh start elsewhere has strong echoes of Jude whilst the illicit journey to escape a political regime has obvious parallels to In This World. Winterbottom himself has attributed the extensive similarities between Code 46 and In This World to the fact that their development process overlapped, with work on Code 46 commencing before In This World was shot (10).
Through its conjunction of thematic preoccupations and visual style, Code 46 also bears strong resemblances to several of Winterbottom’s other films. In it we can see a culmination of the important place that landscape and buildings occupy in his oeuvre. This ranges from the motorways of Butterfly Kiss to the opposition between the city and the countryside that featured significantly in Jude, and from the awesome wilderness about to be raped by the railroad in The Claim to the phantasmagoria of London lights in Wonderland. Visually, Code 46 makes extensive use of geometrical framings which emphasise the symmetry and depth of the long manmade corridors and walkways that define the city’s soulless milieu. This strategy echoes Butterfly Kiss in particular. In a more general sense, the production design and cinematography participate in the director’s widespread practice of creating environments that are at once realistic and impressionistic; they are presented in an almost documentary detail but, at the same time, stylistic touches are used to suggest a psychological environment as much as a physical one. In particular, a subtle metaphor for the characters’ entrapment by the bureaucratic government/corporate structures is embodied through a recurring technique of set design and camera placement. Inside large buildings, our view of characters is sometimes mediated by a corporate logo that appears in the bottom right hand corner of the frame, thereby suggesting a point of view through sheets of otherwise invisible plate glass. Irrespective of the genre in which he works, Winterbottom’s ongoing preoccupations are never entirely absent.
9 Songs also integrated a range of elements that had featured in many of the director’s earlier films. Its central focus on the workings of a relationship is just one familiar trait. Its matter-of-fact approach to depicting sex is an especially recognisable trademark that was, in this case, explored to its extreme. Although the film’s controversial nature depends in part on the explicitness of some of the unsimulated sex scenes – an ejaculation shot, for instance, and images of cunnilingus in which the labia are clearly visible – the crux of the problem for many critics has been the slender division between fiction and documentary. The events are staged, but a great deal is asked of actors (Margo Stilley and Kieran O’Brien) who are not career pornographers. The scenario is fictional, but the sex scenes can be construed as documentary in nature, to almost the same extent as the nine concerts that punctuate the film and provide it with its title.
The degree to which the sex scenes can prove uneasy viewing, even whilst they are sometimes erotic, extends Winterbottom’s tendency for combining elements of pleasure and discomfort. This was previously manifested most clearly in Butterfly Kiss although it can occasionally be recognised elsewhere. Much of the film seems so intimate that to watch it feels taboo. In an echo of Nadia and Tim’s encounter in Wonderland, the sex scenes normally occur without any background music, so that sounds so seldom heard in cinematic erotica are endowed with an unfamiliar emphasis. As is normal in the director’s work, the opposing tendencies that the film makes apparent – documentary/fiction and pleasure/discomfort – are sometimes reconciled but, at other times, the narrational style works to maintain the dichotomy. It is unsurprising that the film has polarised its critics, just as Butterfly Kiss did, but whether one likes the film or not, it is hard not to admire the audacity with which Winterbottom continues to push the envelope of accepted filmmaking practice.
Aberration and Alchemy
“Is it going to play in multiplexes?” Winterbottom asked regarding In This World. “No, obviously not. Is it going to play anywhere? Probably not. But the point is it will be interesting to do, and if you’ve got something interesting to do, then why wouldn’t you want to do it? I want to do what I want to do rather than what’s good for my career.” (11)
This statement can be seen to epitomise Winterbottom’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking. Although in confining himself to the production of feature length narrative films he operates within a filmmaking environment that is always, to some degree, commercial, the liberties that he takes with the conventions of this form are both substantial and, in some ways, personal. When viewing a group of his films, it is not hard to distinguish features that connect them to one another even whilst they separate them off from the work of other directors. This is in spite of the fact that the range of Winterbottom’s projects has been wide. In particular, the number of different film genres in which he has worked has often been a source of astonishment to critics. Comedy, drama (both period and contemporary), crime, science fiction, music, war, docudrama, and even a western of sorts: all these genres have featured in his repertoire. Whilst some of their consistent traits, such as the focus on relationships, cannot be construed as particular only to Winterbottom, others prove far more distinctive marks of his individual style.
The repetition and variation of such motifs and structures as the various rhetorical oppositions he employs occupy a body of work that constantly tests and challenges the boundaries of cinematic form and is highly conscious of its relationship to dominant models of filmmaking. Yet whilst Winterbottom’s narrational strategies might often be thought of as Brechtian, the sensitivity with which he interrogates human emotions and interpersonal relationships is sometimes capable of producing very immediate empathetic responses. More than anything else, though, Winterbottom’s work is defined by his dexterity in creating a collage of ideas and techniques that often come together in new and surprising ways. In this respect we might think of him, like Bez in 24 Hour Party People, as a “great chemist”, who mixes together different elements to bring into being astonishing experiences that frequently transcend the sum of their parts.
The author wishes to express thanks to Caroline Henshaw at Verve Pictures and Melissa Parmenter at Revolution Films for their assistance in providing materials.
Butterfly Kiss (1995)
Go Now (1995)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
I Want You (1998)
With or Without You (1998)
The Claim (2000)
24 Hour Party People (2002)
In This World (2002)
Code 46 (2003)
9 Songs (2004)
A Cock and Bull Story (in post-production, due for release 2005)
Michael Atkinson, “Michael Winterbottom: Cinema as Heart Attack”, Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 1, January–February 1998, pp.44–47.
Liza Bear, “Michael Winterbottom”, Bomb, no. 62, winter 1998, pp. 34–39.
Xan Brooks, “Welcome to Sarajevo”, Sight and Sound, vol. 7, no. 11, November 1997, pp. 56–57.
Jan Epstein, “Michael Winterbottom: Welcome to Sarajevo”, Cinema Papers, no. 23, March 1998, pp. 28–30, 45.
Nicky Fennell, “Winter Wonderland”, Film West, no. 39, February 2000, pp. 42–44.
Richard Kelly, “In This World”, Sight and Sound, vol. 13, no. 4, April 2003, pp. 40.
Alistair Owen, (ed.), Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters, Bloomsbury, London, 2003.
Neil Sinyard and Melanie Williams, “’Living in A World That Did Not Want Them’: Michael Winterbottom and the Unpopular British Cinema”, Journal of Popular British Cinema, no. 5, 2002, pp. 114–122.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Wonderland by Bill Mousoulis
These include a wealth of resources such as interviews, production notes and filmmakers’ diaries.
Stephen Applebaum, “Winterbottom: The Claimant”, Netribution, 2001.
Geraldine Bedell, “A Winterbottom’s Tale”, The Observer, February 1, 2004.
Ian Berriman, “Interview: Michael Winterbottom on Code 46”, SFX, September 1, 2004.
Anwar Brett, “Michael Winterbottom: Code 46”, bbc.co.uk, September 13, 2004.
James Brown, “Lights, Camera, Explicit Action”, The Independent, May 13, 2004.
Spence D, “Interview with Michael Winterbottom”, IGN Filmforce, May 9, 2001.
Howard Feinstein, “Michael Winterbottom Talks about his Tragic Road Movie, In This World”, indieWIRE, September 18, 2003.
Stephen Garrett, “An Interview with Michael Winterbottom, Director of Welcome to Sarajevo”, indieWIRE, December 1, 1997.
David Gritten, “Director in a Hurry”, The Daily Telegraph, September 20, 2004.
Simon Hattenstone, “The Film Factory”, The Guardian, March 29, 2002.
Adrian Hennigan, “Michael Winterbottom: 9 Songs”, bbc.co.uk, March 3, 2005.
Stuart Jeffries, “The Walking Wounded of Wonderland”, The Guardian, January 18, 2000
Anthony Kaufman, “Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland”, indieWIRE, July 28, 2000.
Wendy Mitchell, “Michael Winterbottom on Code 46: Typical Love Story in an Atypical World”, indieWIRE, August 6, 2004.
James Mottram, “Michael Winterbottom: The Claim”, bbc.co.uk, January 31, 2001.
Margaret Pomeranz, “Interview with Michael Winterbottom, the Director of 9 Songs”, At The Movies, 2005.
Nick Roddick, “The Roddick Interview: Michael Winterbottom”, FilmFestivals.com, 1997.
Jessica Winter, “World in Motion”, The Village Voice, September 24–30, 2003.
Paul Morley, “Shooting the Past”, The Guardian, February 23, 2001.
Click here to search for Michael Winterbottom DVDs, videos and books at
- Alistair Owen (ed.), Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters, Bloomsbury, London, 2003, p. 132; Simon Hattenstone, “The Film Factory”, The Guardian, March 29, 2002.
- Derek Malcolm, “Film of the Week: Sex, Spikes and Sad Cafés”, The Guardian, August 17, 1995.
- Michael Atkinson, “Michael Winterbottom: Cinema as Heart Attack”, Film Comment, vol. 34, no. 1, January–February 1998, p. 45.
- Stuart Jeffries, “The Walking Wounded of Wonderland”, The Guardian, 18th January 2000; Anthony Kaufman, “Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland”, indieWIRE, July 28, 2000.
- Owen, p. 111.
- Jan Epstein, “Michael Winterbottom: Welcome to Sarajevo”, Cinema Papers, no. 23, March 1998, p. 29; Jeffries, op. cit.
- Geraldine Bedell, “A Winterbottom’s Tale”, The Observer, February 1, 2004.
- Paul Morley, “Shooting the Past”, The Guardian, February 23, 2001.
- Xan Brooks describes the criticisms levelled at Welcome to Sarajevo when it was shown at Cannes: “Welcome to Sarajevo”, Sight and Sound, vol. 7, no. 11, November 1997, p. 57; Richard Kelly argues that In This World‘s messages are muddled: “In This World”, Sight and Sound, vol. 13, no. 4, April 2003, p. 40.
- Bedell, op. cit.
- Hattenstone, op cit. The Film Factory”, The Guardian, March 29, 2002.