About midway through Eliza Hittman's debut feature It Felt Like Love, Lila finds herself at a house party. She's slumped outside the bathroom, having just drunkenly vomited, watching through the crowd as her crush, Sammy, flirts with another girl. Her view is obscured by the muscular contours of other shirtless men; the unnamed girl takes Sammy's hand and leads him toward the bedroom. Through a crack in the door Lila watches, unnoticed, as the girl undresses him. Sammy drawls, "I gotta be up at 6am, can you set my alarm?" "Am I your mother?" she asks, facetiously.
Some time later Lila alerts to the girl exiting the room, and senses an opportunity. She creeps into Sammy's room as he slumbers—sits at the edge of his bed, undoes the clasps of her strapless bra, and lays beside him, stroking the lobe of his pierced ear. Before all this, though, she sets his alarm.
Such ambivalence between female figures—mother and lover, virgin and tramp—anchors the inquiry posed by It Felt Like Love, an unflinching portrait of an awkward adolescent girl coming-of-age in South Brooklyn. Hittman drains the overwrought genre of its requisite affection; long-lens, shallow-focus cinematography isolates Lila from her environment, while nonprofessional actors speak in the matter-of-fact tones heard in everyday life. Decisively unconcerned with fleeting moments of summer romance, It Felt Like Love instead burrows into uneasy instances of voyeuristic watching.
Lila spends the better part of her time watching her best friend, Chiara, kiss and fondle her boyfriend Patrick, each act of bearing witness reinforcing Lila's obsession with her own lack of experience. As she and Lila walk down the street, Chiara reports, "he went down on me for the first time last week. It was good, but he definitely needs practice." Next, we watch as Lila observes her younger brother flirting with a neighborhood girl, spraying her with a water-gun. When he boasts to Lila that they've kissed, she counters "I met a guy" and co-opts Chiara's experience as her own.
The discomfort of observing a teenage girl lie about oral sex to one-up her brother, who can't be more than ten years old, resonates with Lila's indeterminate status within the economy of women as established by men. To be clear, Lila's overarching goal this idle, languorous summer is to lose her virginity. Yet she appears less driven by tender longing than by an acute awareness of her body's non-participation in structures of consumption and circulation—Lila's anxiety stems from her body's lack of exchange-value.
Expounding upon this theory in her seminal essay "Women on the Market," Luce Irigaray posits women as commodified by society insofar as "women's bodies—through their use, consumption, and circulation—provide for the condition making social life and culture possible, although they remain an unknown 'infrastructure' of the elaboration of that social life and culture" . It Felt Like Love examines and methodically unravels this hidden infrastructure as Lila attempts to articulate herself vis-à-vis social economies of sexual intimacy, care, and desire.
For Irigaray, the reproductive potential of the female body constitutes its use-value, while that body's circulation among men establishes its exchange-value. Thus there exist three female archetypes—the mother, who is pure use-value; the virgin, who is all exchange-value; and the prostitute, who embodies both. By setting Sammy's alarm and slinking naked into bed with him, Lila strives to inhabit both mother and tart. Once Lila understands that Sammy won't sleep with her, she doubles down. In one of the film's more disquieting sequences, Chiara takes Lila to an abortion clinic after Lila lies about having had unprotected sex. Brandishing her body's use-value as a conceivable mother, Lila demonstrates the lengths to which she will venture to deny her virginal status.
A similar disavowal structures Lila's attempt to assert her potential for exchange among men. After stalking him at his workplace, Lila wanders into an impromptu chill session with Sammy and his friends, who sit around a darkened room smoking blunts and watching porn. As they absently remark on the actress's body parts, Lila announces that she has considered it as a potential career—the hours are good, and so is the pay. The boys' chuckles are drowned out by moaning, emanating from the television, and the rhythmic beat of Sammy's friend clapping a ping-pong paddle against his hand. He tells Lila to stand and drop her pants, so he can make her white flesh turn red.
Despite her increasingly desperate attempts, Lila does not achieve her goal of sexual intimacy in It Felt Like Love. Her advances remain unrequited, forged, purloined—all while the film foregrounds the act of watching. Lila's watching makes us aware that we, too, are watching, and often in unsettling circumstances. First-time filmmaker Eliza Hittman places the spectator in a position of discomfort—regarding Lila's voyeurism, falsehoods, and escalating exposure—and, in doing so, interrogates our status as viewers while establishing a bold account of the stakes involved in the articulation of female sexuality. Lila is still a virgin, yet having navigated the social pressures to, and potentialities of, being otherwise.