Lie with Me
2005Director: Clement Virgo
Cast: Lauren Lee Smith, Eric Balfour
o quell the beginnings of an erection while simultaneously maintaining a sober distance from the object of your assessment isn’t exactly familiar or comfortable territory for a critic. But it’s unlikely that anyone was ever asked to sit down and consider pornography seriously, as an art with its own system of values and aesthetics, liable to reflect and inform something remnant and revelatory about culture. And yet, this is exactly what Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo set out to do, more or less, in his most recent feature film, Lie with Me. A hot if hotly intrepid coital surfeit of a film, Lie with Me premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival to mixed reviews. For some, it was merely glorified smut, neither edifying nor relevant, while others praised its audacious bravura and explicit depictions of simulated sex-acts.
The detractors were hardly puritans, though, since the film’s source material, the eponymous novella by Tamara Faith Berger, revolved around the exploits of one sexually ravenous young woman. From the start, it’s obvious that novella’s narrator is unmoored, emotionally remote, and all too aware of the stigma of the Slut; even so, she persists in sating her prurient appetites in spite of herself. Whether anomie is the cause of her sexual addiction—the desire to feel something other than torpor or purposelessness—or the result of it is ultimately the more interesting question.
The film iteration of Lie with Me is likely as bawdy as its literary forerunner, given that Virgo and Berger (now partners) adapted the screenplay together. To begin with, we find our narrator, Leila (as played by the ethereal and reposeful Lauren Lee Smith of The L Word and Mutant X) splayed-out topless on a sofa, and, in all her apathetic grace, digging away in her skirt—masturbating! After reaching climax, Leila turns off the pornography with the same sleepy lethargy that lifts her from the sofa, slinks into a transparent top, and not so much walks out of the apartment as effortlessly covers the necessary ground-space to exit.
Next, we are out the door and onto Queen St. where Leila presents herself in stilted narration—narration that doesn’t match the colorful environs of downtown Toronto. Leila wanders into a club and proceeds to numb whatever despair remains. She stumbles into a bathroom with Dave (Eric Balfour), where they share a few unspoken moments admiring each others’ beauty. Later, Dave eyes Leila in the middle of the dance floor, in the middle of a group of guys with liberal hands (that she doesn’t seem to mind on her body). One of the lucky guys is pulled out of the club and into the blinds of an alleyway by the now officious Leila. He’s instructed to lower his pants, at which point Leila begins to perform fellatio, an act so graphically depicted as to show the actress’ hand actually holding the actor’s penis. By this point, Dave and his girlfriend are well-positioned to view the alleyway gambol, and, naturally, Dave’s girlfriend follows Leila’s lead. The voyeurism feels untoward as the scene continues un-truncated, forcing us to watch, doubtless with pleasure, and then rather guiltily and uncomfortably as Leila is turned around, now facing Dave, and almost appearing to cry.
Lie with Me offers two damaged and unguarded characters, both in need of love. For Leila, a photo-store clerk, it’s her parents’ divorce and the imminent sale of their family home that precipitates her Slough of Despond. It’s clear, however, that her angst precedes the film’s narrative, and that her wounds are deeper than the surface histrionics. A recurring motif is the home-movies of a child, possibly Leila, at various stages of early life, splashing winsomely in the bathtub, moving about thick shag carpet distractedly. The home-movies are juxtaposed with Leila’s visits to her quickly emptying childhood home, where boxes replace familiar signposts of adolescences, a close study in vanishing nostalgia. Likewise, Dave’s familial atrophy is perceptible as he takes care of his sick father; there is no mother in site. Their apartment is laden with sheets of paper of photography or art hung on strings, implying that Dave is an artist of some sort.
By chance, Leila and Dave meet again and begin a sweltering sexual relationship that acts as both salve and unwitting solace. Their levels of vulnerability seem matched for no better reason than the voraciousness of their sex. But their inability to express this vulnerability in any other fashion is the impedance between Love and Lust. (Plaudits to Lauren Lee Smith and Eric Balfour for turning in bravely generous performances, considering that they spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time au naturel.) The explicit sex that should function as a meditation on the anomic search for some type of physical charge (think: self-mutilation) does so because the lovemaking is ribald, gratuitous, and at last cathartic--the body as last refuge from the mind.
Similar to Virgo’s well-received Rude (1995), Lie with Me is about capturing a distinctive mood. In a 2005 interview with NOW Magazine, Virgo explains his intentions with respect to the later film:
When I read the book, it wasn't about the story, it was about this feeling that the book conjured up in me, this kind of visceral, raw energy, that was like what I felt when I first fell in love, that sexual aspect of falling in love. That was the challenge of it for me, to take a plot-driven narrative and capture an emotion.It’s certainly the case that Virgo skimped on the narrative in favor of the mood. At times, the film comes off inert and aimless, absent of an apparent conflict. The Bee Hives version of Lover’s Spit asserts itself, representing Virgo’s telos: sinuousness, elegiac, inaccessible. And if Woody Allen writes love letters to New York, Virgo is attempting the epistletory equivalent with Toronto. The celluloid is balmy and grainy patina evinces a fleeting and slight dissipation of energy, as if the film were in danger of dissolving away. Toronto has never looked so august and formidable, so warm and inviting. It’s difficult to hold an emotion, especially for the length of a feature film, without conflicting emotions and desires surfacing. It’s even more difficult to fight entropy, but Virgo may have, if only for 90 minutes.
Lie with Me is now available on DVD.
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-05-08