It Felt Like Love is screening in select markets. It will open at Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque for a weeklong run this Friday. Click here for showtimes.
2013 saw a bounty of impressive revivals and screenings throughout the Chicagoland area, none more rewarding than the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Claire Denis retrospective. The Parisian autrice is among the best contemporary directors today - male or female. Higher praise could not be leveled than to compare Eliza Hittman’s directorial debut It Felt Like Love as a shout-out to the sensual compositions of Denis. Like Denis, Hittman is fascinated by physicality and the male presence, where there’s awareness to what the image of the male anatomy says about men and what it contradicts.
It’s summer in New York and Lila (Gina Piersanti) passes the time with her friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her boyfriend. Their daily escapes to the beach make Lila a third-wheel, often awkwardly averting her eyes from their makeout sessions on the sands. Chiara shares her sexual experiences with Lila, with Lila nervously attempting to hide her lack of sexual experience with false over-confidence. When the opportunity presents itself, Lila attempts to lure male contact, though these attempts are largely meant to keep up with Chiara’s experiences and less organic products of time and place. It’s a spurred on attempt at exploring her sexuality that’s less to do with biological necessity as much as the social strains of peer pressure.
Lila aims her advances toward some of the older men in her community, becoming fairly open and nonchalant with her approach. The men she encounters are framed in a similar way as the members of the French Foreign Legion in Denis’ Beau Travail - rugged and methodical in their movements. Hittman is attentive toward capturing these men at their most hyper-masculine. The key difference between Denis’ work and Hittman’s being the point of observation. In It Felt Like Love, the perspective is complicated by how it frames Lila in relation to the men she objectifies. The problem is that when these men attempt to objectify her, she’s incapable of acting on anything sexual provided the forced social circumstance. It’s a complicated social terrain that Hittman’s develops, one that eventually feels as if it aims for shock, lending itself a bit more to Catherine Breillat (particularly 2001’s Fat Girl) than Denis.
Much as Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy saw its most critical observations through how a man sees the women in his life, Hittman’s It Felt Like Love attempts to make a similar statement onto how women observe men. The two lead female characters that compose the film, Chiara and Lila, inhabit two different spheres of sexual activity: the experienced and inexperienced. Their differing experiences therein prevent them from seeing eye-to-eye on the men they encounter with the ensuing friction stemming from a fundamental disagreement of social and sexual mores. How these characters interact with each other and their contrasting approach to men provide It Felt Like Love with a mosaic of perspectives and counter-perspectives.
Despite a particularly difficult final sequence involving Lila and the men she has worked over for the picture’s runtime, everything about Hittman’s effort registers as a piece of organic filmmaking. It’s an incredibly assured debut, filled with insights and carefully photographed imagery. The French have typically dominated this subgenre of female sexual awakenings but Hittman joins the fray with something of rich American context.