Kensington Market bustles nervously under looming clouds. On Augusta, patios without awnings are clearing out. This isn't the golden, steamy Toronto of early July. It's the lowering, unseasonably chilly Toronto that rears its head in less charitable representations of the city. Clement Virgo's having none of it. In the quiet back section of King's Cafe, he's leaning forward on the table, forearms curled around a small bowl of plain brown rice.
"There's this tendency to show Toronto as grey and depressing, and I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to make a love story to the city," he's saying, "to capture what it's like to walk down Queen Street on a summer evening."
We're talking about Lie With Me, his nudity-filled film that premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next week. Virgo directed from a screenplay adapted from the novel by his partner, Tamara Faith Berger. She's sitting next to him, arm hooked over the back of her chair, watching him attentively.
The two met a few years back when Berger was writing and painting in a room at the Cameron House and Virgo was living up the street. Asked how long they've been together, Virgo laughs, "Long enough to have a kid."
The book, which chronicles in deep first person the sexual misadventures of a nameless female protagonist, is very dark. On her quest to figure out the link between sex and love, she's variously tied up, beaten up, humiliated and abandoned.
The adaptation, written by Berger with input from Virgo, is surprisingly sunny and romantic. Our heroine's still confused, but her boyfriend's a pretty nice guy. I mention the difference.
"The book read to me like a love story," Virgo explains, " so I wanted to put the love story aspect more into focus."
It is a love story, certainly, via psychic angst and porn, the latter of which is where Berger started her career as a writer.
"They were little digest-sized books with two- or three-page stories. You'd start with sex, the middle was sex and the end was sex," she explains. "'But,' I wondered, 'What would happen if one of these characters expressed more than just moaning? What else are they thinking? Is there any emotion in porn?'"
She started to experiment, and found that there could be. The result was Lie With Me. Berger has published a second, similarly anguished novel, The Way Of The Whore, and is currently working on a third. "I'm realizing, as I keep writing other things less attached to the porn genre, that I have a dark streak. I don't know why. I don't particularly feel like a dark person," she shrugs. It's true - she comes across as pleasantly matter-of-fact and self-possessed; it's hard to match her up to the tortured nymphet of her books.
Virgo was drawn to Lie With Me because of the difficulties it presented.
"It's so subjective, from the female point of view, and I thought it would be a real challenge to make that film as a man - and to capture that feeling.
"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.
"And to make a film about sex as it pertains to love. We see romance in lots of films, but sex is usually very dark; if it's about a female character, she usually gets punished, and I didn't want to punish this character.
"When I first read the book, it kind of terrified me," he explains, "because I knew I wanted to make a movie out of it, and how was I going to shoot the sex scenes?
"I never just pointed the camera at them and said, 'Okay, now go at it.' We treated it like any other scene, plotted out every single movement. So each scene felt different and had a different emotional aspect. It wasn't like the camera's over here and they're over there on the bed and the camera's got a long lens. I wanted to get past the wall. I wanted to be in the bed with them, to move when they moved, to breathe when they breathed. I wanted to capture an intimacy: what is it like to be with your lover on a sunny afternoon in bed?
"And the only way was to be part of it, to be in it. To be very subjective. To let Leila bring us into the room, into the moment. To my mind, an objective camera would have been like the male gaze, observing the female, and I wanted to break that down."
That's a tough thing to do in the movies, and whether Virgo entirely succeeded, or could succeed, is very much open to debate; it's another thing in the book, where the first-person narrator is seldom seen from the outside.
Obviously, this made casting a challenge. After auditioning about 150 actresses in Toronto and L.A., Virgo received an audition tape from Lauren Lee Smith.
"I'd worked with Lauren on The L Word and I liked her energy, but I didn't even think of her as the character," he says.
People were passing the book around on the set of the show, which was how she found out about it.
"She sent me a tape, saying, 'I think I'm the character.' I watched it first, and then Tamara came home and I said, 'Look at this tape,' and she said, 'Yeah, this is the girl.'
"And once we found her, suddenly she was the character. We shaped the character around her, around her energy and her voice. It was a different thing from the book, because now she's embodied - she kind of makes it her own, which is exciting to see."
Wasn't it hazardous, though, collaborating as a couple?
"I never thought about it until people started asking me, 'You're working with your partner? Isn't that scary?'" Virgo says. "But I can honestly say that there weren't any major fights. The only concern was how we translate this book into a movie."
"And I think that me making a decision early on not to hold onto what was in the book helped," offers Berger. "I wasn't afraid that this was going to change what the book is; it's an evolution of it. There's no responsibility that the movie had to completely represent the book, and I was okay with that right from the beginning. I had no insecurities about my vision or anything - I was just, like, 'Yeah, let's try it out. '"
Lie With Me (Clement Virgo) Rating: NNN
Radically adapted from the book of the same name by Virgo's partner, Tamara Berger, Lie With Me is a surprisingly conventional love story, if you overlook the near-constant fucking.
Leila (Lauren Lee Smith), a voracious club chick from a broken home, meets David (Eric Balfour), a nice young artist with a dying father. Much to Leila's confusion, they fall in love; reversals occur and resolve amid lots of sex.
The downside is that Leila's languid, breathy voice-overs fail to indicate that much behind her smoky eyes has changed after all her travails - she's gone from not very nurturing to somewhat more nurturing is all.
On the upside, the film's positive take on sexuality and its insistence on showing Toronto at its hazy, seductive summer best make Lie With Me a juggernaut of taboo-smashing.
(Saturday, September 10, 9:30 pm, Varsity 8; Monday, September 12, 11:30 am Paramount 2)