ONE OF THE TRULY SURREAL THINGS about dreams is how they make the extraordinary seem ordinary. Stories are picked up and dropped before reaching their conclusion, while flashbacks and interweaving stories are obligatory. So it is with Mike Figgis' latest, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, one of the few films to really capture the feel of a dream, but without relying on devices such as blurry vision and weird music. The movie operates with a dream logic of its own, as its protagonist, Nic (Julian Sands), looks back on different episodes of his life, each of which relates to the loss-of-innocence theme, a theme underscored by scenes of the archetypal tale of loss: Adam and Eve.

The film's director, Mike Figgis, who was in Seattle for the film's screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, agrees that Sexual Innocence flows with a dreamlike feel. Even the film's own dream sequence receives the credit: "'Her Dream,' based on a dream by Bienchen Ohly."

"I love dreams," Figgis says. "I think cinema is the first medium which could actually reproduce a dream, because you have the possibility of working on three or four levels at the same time, with sound and visuals and text. For me, the power of film is its ability to get closer to the subconscious than any other medium, because it's non-literal. The horror film genre, funnily enough, is the one that most obviously approaches dream imagery, which is why it's so potent. In fact, a rather indifferent director can create a very powerful dreamscape in a horror movie that will really terrorize and frighten its audience."

Still, another person's dreams aren't necessarily comprehensible, and Sexual Innocence garnered a reputation as a "difficult" film while it was still playing the film fest circuit. Nic's journey doesn't follow anything close to a linear path, and it's not always evident how the different sequences relate to each other. People who see the film solely on the basis of Figgis' previous film, Leaving Las Vegas, are bound to come away confused.

Figgis readily admits the reaction to Sexual Innocence has been mixed. "The word 'pretentious' is hurled at you a lot," he says mildly. "'This is the most pretentious film I've ever seen!' I've had some people say they thought it was the best film they'd ever seen. Somebody said it was a whole new genre. Other people come up, obviously just furious, really angry that the film was so boring for them, too enigmatic.

"It was pretty funny at Sundance," he continues. "The first question out was, 'Perhaps you could tell me what the hell this movie was about?' I said, 'No. If you don't understand it, I don't have the time or the intellectual energy to stand here and tell you verbally what it's about. If it doesn't work for you, I'm sorry, but I'm not making it for the entire world. I'm making it for whoever wants to see it.' The audience applauded, because clearly it was such an aggressive, inflammatory question."

At SIFF, the film provoked similarly polarized reactions, with people either hating it or finding themselves haunted by the film's images. Figgis himself doesn't think Sexual Innocence is difficult to understand. "I believe anybody who watches this film does understand it," he says. "Every story is pretty straightforward. It's not experimental, in the sense of some films where the camera's doing really weird things and you don't know who anybody is. Everybody knows the story of Adam and Eve, the title's pretty explanatory, so the question is 'Did you like it, yes or no?"

"Having said all that, it doesn't mean you can stand up and say, 'It was about this,'" Figgis adds. "I do think there's an internal dialogue with the audience. If someone asked, 'What was the fourth story about?' you'd say, 'It was about a teenage boy, and his girlfriend gets drunk and goes upstairs with another man and he catches them. That's what it's about.' But the film's not 'about' that. The film's about how that story resonates with a later story where the same character, as a 40-year-old, is in a car in a desert. Any single story can be explained logically, I think. I hope. I hope nothing's too enigmatic. It's about the accumulation of those images, how they make you feel, and what resonances you have for some of them. Did they touch you in some way?"