Sex is a Force of Both Love and Death in David Robert Mitchell's It Follows

in 25th Tromso International Film Festival

by Atli Bjarnason

An aura of inclusion typically permeates Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF), and this was very much reflected in this year’s film selection, especially the eclectic competition program. Alongside the more predictable contenders, such as Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA) and Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia), an effort was obviously made to highlight works from parts of the world that rarely get recognized for their cinematic output. Relatively small films such as the Kazakh tragedy Nagima (Zhanna Issabayeva) and the very light Kyrgyz comedy Taxi and Telephone (Ernest Abdyjaparov) aren’t likely to get much exposure elsewhere.

Diverse as they were (in both origin and quality), I was disappointed that only one of these films managed to really sweep me off my feet – Bruno Dumont’s magnificent L’il Quinquin (P’tit Quinquin), which was awarded the FIPRESCI prize. The only other film to make an equally deep impression was screened out of competition, and won me over instantly with its inventive premise and stylish horror aesthetics: David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. It’s not that the film necessarily needs more coverage; it has, after all, garnered a significant amount of hype since its premiere at Cannes last year. But, besides praising its craft and entertainment value, I want to look at another prominent aspect of the film: its treatment of sexuality.

Jay, a nineteen year old girl, is constantly stalked by “it”: a curse contracted via sex. In various kinds of human form, it ceaselessly follows you, with the intention to kill. The curse can’t be defeated, only passed on by having sex with someone else. If that person dies, it comes back for you, so putting the burden on someone else  isn’t more than a temporary diversion. It is a terrific concept that the filmmaker utilizes to great effect – in each shot, you can’t help but compulsively study the background, highly suspicious of anyone who appears to be walking there.

Like Mitchell’s previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), It Follows is a coming-of-age drama, albeit one where the teenager’s path to adulthood is paved with unspeakable horror. The film is in some sense a cautionary tale, but Mitchell’s goal isn’t to blame young adults for not keeping their pants on. Rather, he appears deeply empathetic to the angst and dangers associated with sexual awakening. Hazards such as sexually transmitted diseases and assaults are embodied by the curse and its stalking killers. Mitchell does in no way condemn sex as an act, only as a weapon.

A teenager’s sexual problem is typically a lonely struggle, too private and embarassing to be shared with adults. Even though it’s a matter of life and death, the teens in It Follows must deal with the danger themselves. This is emphasized by the nearly total absence of parents and other adult characters. When they’re around, their faces are rarely shown.

It Follows is heavily influenced by classic slasher films, and most apparently inspired by John Carpenter, with its atmospheric and unsettling synth score and the way it tears down the presumed safety of a sleepy suburbia, which recalls Halloween (1978). But although Mitchell’s film pays its respect to its predecessors, it thankfully does not adopt their sexual politics (I am, of course, referring to the well-known trope of killing off the more promiscuous characters early on – in a way punishing them for acting on their urges – and sparing the virginal girl as the only survivor). Here, sex is a force of nature, an unavoidable step in one’s development towards maturity, one that you cannot fight but only come to terms with. But even though the sex acts in this film are always accompanied by a sense of danger, the intent behind them is not exclusively deceit or malice – often, they are acts of love or self-sacrifice.

Aside from its main objective – keeping its audience on the edge of their seats – It Follows also invites us to understand and identify with the struggles of burgeoning sexuality. All in all, its treatment of sexuality is unusually compassionate and healthy, even when compared with films not in the horror genre. Its underlying message is as relevant to teenagers as it is to their parents – although I imagine they would prefer to see it seperately.

Edited by: Yael Shuv