TORONTO-Clément Virgo wants to turn you on. If it wasn't obvious from watching his movie, Lie With Me, which kicks off with Vancouver actor Lauren Lee Smith (The L Word), seriously enjoying herself while watching a porn movie, it was clear at his movie's launch party-which featured male and female strippers simulating various sex acts-at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
"We want to cry when we see a film, or laugh, or feel joy, but I think, for me, being turned on is a valid emotion. I think somehow there's a sense that you have to keep a cap on your sexual energy or else it could spill over and you might cause harm or something," Virgo says with a laugh. "So I love the idea of 500 people in a room and they're turned on by my movie."
Instead of the standard-issue romantic film where sex is downplayed or ignored to make room for complications and courtship, Lie With Me is a raw romantic drama that tells a couple's story through their sexual encounters. Leila (Smith) is the sexually aggressive narrator and Eric Balfour (whose TV credits include playing Claire's first boyfriend on Six Feet Under and a starring role in the new TV series Sex, Love & Secrets) is David, the guy who might be perfect for her. Or not.
Based on the erotic novel by Virgo's wife, Tamara Berger-and adapted by Berger and Virgo-there's more to Lie With Me than sex. But sitting in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental just before the film's premiere, Virgo says he loves the fact that his film is prompting interviewers and audiences to talk about sex and their personal feelings and boundaries.
"It's very fascinating with this film to have the chance to make this film and engage. Normally, if you and I were sitting with a beer at some festival party, we would never suddenly talk about sex. So it's a great excuse to talk frankly and openly about sexuality and such a personal, mysterious subject."
Virgo claims he initially picked up his wife's book as a reader-not as a filmmaker looking for a potential property-but the style made him envision it on-screen. "I was really fascinated by doing something that was more tonal. The films that I've liked recently have really been about tone as opposed to about narrative story."
Tone aside, there's also enough skin on display from Smith and Balfour that if Virgo edited out a few of the parental battles and emotional epiphanies, he could certainly find a home for his film on the "after dark" channels in hotel rooms.
And it's hard to avoid talking about sex when there's a "did they or didn't they" buzz around a movie. Virgo cast Balfour and Smith based on their chemistry and then put them in bed-and bathrooms, cars, etc.-together. He and the actors then vowed they would never discuss exactly what happened in their scenes. "We all made an agreement on the set that we would go where we needed to go and we would leave it in the room and we wouldn't talk about it outside the room," Virgo says. Although that was likely crucial to building trust with his cast, it's also the type of promise that sounds awfully coy in interviews and pretty much guarantees that reporters have to ask: how far did things go?
"Did it look real?" Virgo asks with a smile. "I guess it's what's your definition of sex? If it felt real, looked real, it is emotionally real, absolutely."
In past films like Rude and Love Comes Down, Virgo focused on racial conflicts, but he loved the idea of switching to sexuality because it's another chance to push people's buttons, possibly even the ones on the Vibrate setting. "It's one of the last frontiers in cinema and, as an artist, I find it fascinating to go to that frontier. We don't know what other people do in their bedrooms. No one talks about masturbation, really, and everyone masturbates."
Whether or not the sex is simulated, it's definitely close enough that Virgo knows Lie With Me isn't likely to show up in your local family video store any time soon, and he's pretty much expecting somebody, somewhere, to condemn it as pornographic. Virgo has his own simple dividing line between art and porn. "I have a cinematic definition, and it's Hitchcock-because every film should have suspense in it. Every film should have a little bit of Hitchcock. And porn doesn't have any Hitchcock, you just wade in. I think Lie With Me has plenty of suspense in it and, hopefully, a little bit of Hitchcock." And a whole lot of full-frontal nudity.