Tactile Desires

in 51st Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Alexandra Zawia

The desiring gaze of a female teenager and the desire to touch is paramount in Eliza Hittman’s film debut It Felt Like Love (USA, 2013), shown at the Viennese film festival Viennale. A coming-of-agedrama strictly told from a girl’s perspective, this isthe story of fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) who spends her summer vacation at the hot sands of Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach. As a sort of tag-along to her sexually more active girlfriend Chiara (Gioavanna Salimeni), who ostentatiously makes out with her boyfriend, Lila longs for erotic encounters and sets her eyes on an older thug called Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein). She pursues him despite the fact that he is obviously not interested in her. Eventually, she starts inventing a sexual relationship with him, bragging about it in front of others, only to become humiliated by him and his pals. Nevertheless, at the end, Hittman does not leave her heroine in despair; rather, she treats these events (which she doesn’t show in its full extent) as painful, but by no means crushing experiences. At the end, Lila performs on stage with her girlfriend in different masks as an (almost too obvious) suggestion to the different stages of identity formation at work in a female’s rite-of-passage.

Some commentators have complained about Hittman’s camera work as pretentious and affected, because she dwells in close-ups on young and beautiful faces, frequently racks focus, etc. But rather than settle on the conventions of a “typical art film”, she aims for a kind of sensuous cinema which, through haptic imagery, attempts to convey the experiences of bodily sensations inherent to the process of coming-of-age. Right from the beginning, Hittman appeals to our sense of touch. Already in the opening scenes, the camera closes in on the bodies of the three teenagers lying on the beach, applying sun crème to each other’s skin. By immediately foregrounding acts of touch, she sets the mood of the film, which deals with heightened states of (self) awareness, and sexuality (and as in the case of Lila, suppressed sexuality.) The conditions of “getting hot” and “cooling down” are paralleled with the humidity of summer and the repeated shots of ventilators. Frequently taking on the point-of-view of Lisa, the camera follows her gazing at teenage boys passing by, but from an unusual perspective. We see,for example, the armpit of Sammy, the boy she desires, and his legs up to the knees, before we really get to see his face. Hittman takes great care to guide our attention to singled out (often in close-ups) body parts such as (dirty) feet, (injured) skin, and (long) hair, thus highlighting the haptic appeal of its “materiality” and enhancing its tactile quality. During a walk with Sammy through long grass, which matches the long hair of the protagonist, the boy cuts his skin and starts bleeding.This incident — when skin splits open — seems to amount to one of the most “romantic” encountersbetween the two of them in the course of the entire narrative.Later, Sammy and his friends viciously propose Lila gives all of them a blowjob, a suggestion she willingly seems to agree to. Hittman does not play out this entire scene on screen and leaves to our imagination, if Lila goes through with this proposal or not. But this crude sexual encounter certainly does not match her subjective sensuousness, which otherwise Hittman carefully constructed through the point of view of the heroine. Rather, in another shot, we see Lila floating in water — and image, which, once again, speaks to Lila’s yearningfor being touched, epitomized in an image of full body perception (i.e. being in/under water). Once again, Liza Hittman foregrounds images of tactility, in order to create a teenage world experienced primarily through sense perception, thus, providing for the audience — as the director says in her own words — an “immersive cinema experience.”

Edited by Tara Judah