Saturday, September 6, 2014

Exploring the adolescent sexuality in It Felt Like Love and Young & Beautiful

We're at the particular point that exists between the summer and fall seasons of TV where there's almost no shows with which to occupy one's nights.  Luckily, that also coincides with the period when some of the smaller indie movies that came out earlier in the year start hitting Netflix streaming.  This past week, I decided to capitalize on this confluence of events and catch up on some films that I missed out on in 2014 so far.  Two of those -- It Felt Like Love and Young & Beautiful -- happened to form accidental mirrors, taking on adolescent sexuality in distinct and fascinating ways.

Young & Beautiful is the latest film from French auteur Fran├žois Ozon, whose work is usually characterized by its exploration of human sexuality, and this one is no different.  It tells the story of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a girl who has just turned 17 while on summer holiday with her family.  She quickly loses her virginity to a visiting German boy, and though it's hard to gauge her reaction to the ordeal, it's clear that it had some kind of effect on her, since she decides to become a prostitute once summer ends.  The film chronicles her deep descent into the world of prostitution, as she lies about her age (20) to the much older men she sleeps with and keeps this double life secret from her family.

Where that film follows a headlong dive into the treacherous waters of sex, Eliza Hittman's feature-length debut It Felt Like Love is more like a timid dipping of the toes.  Lila (Gina Piersanti) constantly lives in the shadow of her more sexual and outgoing best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni).  She's more of a watcher than a participant, tagging along as the third wheel whenever Chiara hangs out and canoodles with her revolving door of boyfriends.  Taking in information is the way she learns what people her age do and, by proxy, what she's supposed to do.  It's that pressure that makes her pursue Sammy, a college guy in the neighborhood, so aggressively.  Hittman perfectly captures that feeling of infatuation, the confusion of lust.  Lila doesn't even know why she wants what she wants, but there's something that tugs away at her nonetheless.

The story of Young & Beautiful is very much of a time and place.  The structure is neat, parsing out Isabelle's journey in four seasons.  Each season has its own tone and is paired with a different Fran├žoise Hardy song, giving the film an episodic feeling.  Location choices progress as time does, and with each season change we are reoriented with Isabelle's head space through the spaces she occupies.  The summer scenes are full of bright beaches, representing her budding sexuality, while the fall and winter sequences increasingly find her cloistered in houses and hotel rooms.

Meanwhile, It Felt Like Love feels as if it takes place in an endless summer.  The film languidly follows these characters who mostly just hang out at the beach, lay around in bed, and party in dark houses.  It doesn't have any obvious signifiers that let you know where it takes place either.  Instead, it's just an amorphous teenage wasteland -- it could be set in any time and any place.  Where Young & Beautiful uses settings and seasons to emphasize the specific sexual history of Isabelle, It Felt Like Love could be a stand-in for anybody's teenage experience.

The two films also diverge in terms of technical style.  Ozon shoots Young & Beautiful with a very removed sense, all static shots and medium-length framing.  The sex scenes are graphic, but feel rather austere, as if we're observing them half-lidded and from far away.  That style matches the nature of Isabelle herself, given that it's hard to get a gauge on why she does what she does or how it makes her feel.  When the film cuts from the summer portion (where she's just lost her virginity) to the autumn portion (where she is already having sex for money), it's completely jarring.  As a result, we spend the rest of the film in search of a meaning that we never get.  Isabelle is meant to be observed, not necessarily understood.

On the other hand, It Felt Like Love strives for intimacy with every shot.  Hittman's swaying camera gets up close and personal, focusing on bodies -- the way they move, the way they bend and curve, the way they collide and rub up against each other.  The scenes are impressionistic, but the impression they leave is strong.  Not many words are spoken between the characters, but the emotions roll off of them like waves, to the point where there's almost no purpose in talking.  The way the camera slides up against Lila, you can always see the feelings conveyed on her face, every bluff and tell.  Unlike in Young & Beautiful, no sex is actually shown.  The implication is all that matters.  It Felt Like Love is overflowing with sexual energy.

Everybody is constantly trying to control Isabelle's sexuality in Young & Beautiful.  The prostitute-client transaction makes it such that she is at the command of her johns, and the sex is based upon their requests and desires.  When her mother finds out about what Isabelle is doing in her free time, she reacts harshly, excoriating Isabelle and forcing her to see a therapist.  Her mother does whatever she can to make sure her daughter isn't turning tricks.  All of these efforts, from her mother and the johns alike, are an attempt to make Isabelle's sexuality something that they can bend to their will.  But try as they might, sex is about pleasure for Isabelle, and prostitution is a decision all her own.

Sex is more an obligation for Lila, some kind of box she has to check off.  Adolescence rests squarely between childhood and adulthood, and is a period where most are desperate to leave the former in the dust by play-acting like they're already entrenched in the latter.  It Felt Like Love is all about the ways in which teens are desperate to look, feel, and be older than they are.  On numerous occasions, Lila mimics things that make her appear grown up, hiding that she knows less about sex than she lets on.  Not even she, it would seem, knows whether she actually wants to have sex or if she's just pursuing this older boy to catch up with everyone around her.

In both Young & Beautiful and It Felt Like Love, the protagonists get in a little bit over their heads.  Isabelle decides to become a prostitute without fully being able to deal with the implications of being underaged when the job goes wrong.  Lila pursues a college guy and winds up getting more than she bargained for by pretending she's readier than she actually is.  Yet neither Hittman or Ozon judges them for it.  Instead, they both acknowledge the universal messiness of sex.  Though the two films may be different in terms of style and form, they effectively navigate the weeds we all have to trudge through at some point in our lives.

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