It Follows, part 3: The aesthetics of fright

The freeze frames from It Follows used in this article are taken from a screener made available to Montages by the film’s Norwegian distributor. The article reveals the whole plot.


This is the last of three analytical articles about It Follows by David Robert Mitchell. The first article is a general discussion on the film, structured around ten different approaches to this many-faceted work. The second article explores central motifs like sleep, water and red colour-coding.

This third article is about the film’s staging and aesthetics. It culminates in an exploration of the discreetly striking sequence where the protagonist wakes up in hospital to a reality turned strange: a tour-de-force of atmosphere, limited point-of-view and quiet paranoia. The article leans heavily on freeze frames from the film and takes for granted that the reader is already familiar with the plot.

Film analysis is a not always linear process, however. As a small prologue, here comes an item that springs from the first article’s thematic metaphors and the second article’s exploration of the colour red:

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It is not coincidence that the Old Maid card game appears in It Follows. Like the fact that there is only one Follower, there is only one Old Maid card in the deck. Like the importance of passing the film’s curse on to another person, it is imperative to pass the Old Maid card on to another player. If this fails, one ultimately dies/loses the game. The card in the above image is also coloured red, which can be traced back to red being associated with the danger of the Follower. Finally, the Old Maid connotation functions as an ironic upside-down version of the curse, connected as it is to sexual promiscuity.

The careful Mitchell also takes the time to demonstrate the game’s circular nature:

Staging rich in ideas

David Robert Mitchell has said that It Follows intentionally blends props and elements from several time periods in an attempt to create a timeless tale. This conceit can also be interpreted as a signal about the film’s importance as metaphor, rather than a “reality-based” story. (The deliberate confusion of periods has actually been a stumbling block for viewers insisting on a literal approach to cinema.) This is the reason that the teenagers constantly watch 1950s movies, and when Greg (Daniel Zovatto) observes the commotion across the street after the protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe) has been assaulted, the sound of an old-fashioned newsreel or documentary can be heard in the background.

Furthermore, among other things we see TV technology from the 1970s and 80s, while Yara (Olivia Luccardi) uses an e-book reader that in its futuristic design is beyond time. And could it be that Mitchell is also mixing up the seasons? The colour of vegetation places the film in the fall, but the characters are still quite lightly dressed without seeming to be cold, and on several occasions they are bathing and sunning themselves.

It Follows is a very good-looking film. Here are a few memorable compositions:

composition 1
The depth dimension is utilised, with characters positioned in various layers. Jay’s pose against the light from the window is aesthetically pleasing.
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The film’s most beautiful shot? The poses mirror each other, leaning in the same direction. Also this image draws on window light.
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The next shot, where also the lamp and curtains play beautiful parts.

Now for some Follower situations. The old lady Jay discovers through the classroom window is accompanied by the teacher reading aloud the poem «The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock» by T. S. Eliot. One of its lines, «I am Lazarus, come from the dead», perfectly suits the proceedings, and is quoted just before the Follower is seen (the entire poem is here).

Follower walking through people
Jay is the subject of irritated glances when she, in her hurry to get away from the Follower, passes between two people talking. In an obviously intentional echo, the Follower is simply ignored when “she” does the same, both in the exterior and interior shots. Her behaviour in the schoolyard shot subtly reinforces the abnormality about the figure coming towards Jay.
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To the left is Greg’s mother in conversation with Jay’s own mother. The former is dressed entirely in white, as a harbinger of the nightgown when the Follower uses her body in Greg’s murder. (This could also be general foreshadowing, since almost every Follower is dressed in white.) She is one of the very few adults whose face we see in the film; here it has a specific reason, because we are supposed to recognise her when she appears in the doorway of Greg’s room.

Paul (Keir Gilchrist) ponders at one point passing the curse on to some prostitutes. In the below image, the constellation of windshield and rear mirror constitutes a clever summary of a central point of the film: The windshield with the prostitutes represents the future and a potential solution to the Follower problem. The rear mirror symbolises the past, where a Follower can turn up at any time, as a result of the past actions of the character. The shot is clearly composed to give the rear mirror an active role:

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And is it only luck or cold calculation that we can actually see a far-away figure in the mirror? (The freeze frame can be enlarged by clicking on it.)
Følger nabogutt øyne
The mysterious neighbourhood boy is a constant source of unsettling ambiguity. In the left image, which ends Jay’s introduction scene, his eyes appear quite normal, but when he peeks above the fence just before, it seems something has been done to his eyes to make them all-black and threatening. (The rightmost image presents an enlarged version. We probably have to wait for Blu-ray image quality to get definite confirmation.) In this scene, he has a “Follower” too – another boy.

The following slide show presents the stages of one of the most virtuosic scenes in It Follows. The teenagers visit a school to find out the real identity of Jay’s boyfriend – through a 91-second take where the camera swivels around its own axis twice, before it ends in a stylised climax closing in on a situation framed by a doorway. (In the second article we saw how the shot both started and ended with the colour red.) In this scene Mitchell seems determined to only show the faces of the main characters and the Follower. Virtually everyone else is seen from behind – in line with the film’s general strategy of hiding other people’s faces – we only see a little of the face of the blond girl in image no. 3.

The movements of the various figures are precisely coordinated to suit the camera’s circular motion. This continues during the concluding tracking shot, where Jay and Greg are just in time to pass in front of the camera after finishing the conversation with the lady in red. Furthermore, for every revolution of the camera circle we see the potential Follower in a more advanced position. Here my thoughts go to the famous tennis scene in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), where among the match spectators, the only one facing the camera is the protagonist’s nemesis (played by Robert Walker – an amusing name when associated with the Follower).

The freeze frame with red borders is the first one of the slide show. (At any time the show can be restarted from the beginning:  click on the current image and after its enlargement, return to the article.)

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Afterwards the characters sit in the car, discussing. In the background we can make out that the potential Follower is now heading directly towards the car, and when the focus for a moment is shifted to the background (above), we see it quite clearly.

Now we arrive at the sequence culminating in the Follower’s appearance in the kitchen. There are lots of interesting things about the build-up, not least how the old science fiction movie on the TV is commenting on the action. (In both previous articles – for example in item 6 of the first one – we have already seen how its dialogue is doing so.)

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This establishing shot seems a slightly threatening, with the pictures on top of the TV as foreboding, looming shadows. We have the feeling that an invisible figure is observing the room. (Seen with rational eyes the Follower is in many ways a very silly concept, so it is fitting that the camera is placed close to a TV showing corny science fiction.)
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After Jay and Paul’s conversation has been interrupted by the sound of a broken window, the camera returns to the threatening position, now also wobbling a bit, as a reinforcement of the invisible, indefinable threat.
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Paul goes to check things out. The TV film contributes to the mood, because rousing and sinister music starts exactly when Paul is leaving.
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Then the camera remains lingering on an empty room, dominated by a door centrally in the shot. It is probably just a door of a big closet, but it is the visual impression that is important: we are afraid that a monster/Follower shall open the door and enter. The Carpenter movie Halloween (1978), a reference work for Mitchell, contains a complex and varied play on doors, the same goes for The Fog (1980). (Incidentally, the first action of It Follows is the girl of the prologue opening a door, and off-screen we then hear the door open once more – it is the Follower exiting the house.)
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Now a curious coincidence occurs – is this intentional or too crafty even for Mitchell? Exactly when Paul returns, the TV movie cuts to a shot of a rocket. Just like Paul now goes upstairs to find the others, the rocket too disappears into the higher spheres, out of the shot. One can read even more into this: space rockets are associated with exploration and can therefore be connected to Jay – soon, she is to embark upon an exploration of the kitchen, which suddenly has an air of unknown and creepy territory, like the planet is to the characters of the TV movie.
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Flashback: As Jay entered the room, the TV movie again comments upon the situation. Her arrival is timed with the arrival of a flying reptile in the TV movie, and a female character on the sea planet is threatened by the monster, like Jay is by the Follower. As discussed in the second article, the sea planet fits in with the water motif in It Follows.
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Now Jay is on her way to the kitchen,. She also appears as a somewhat eerie reflection in the mirror…
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…here we see a phone on the kitchen wall that will become both a geographical and thematic reference point…
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…she passes two paintings – like the big painting in the living room, both have sea/river subjects…
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…out into the kitchen, towards the “mysterious” phone.

The following situation was already studied in the first article (item 8), so it is here presented only through a slide show. Unlike many of the Follower incidents, this situation is made very strange through the use of ultra-slow motion. Jay also moves in an artificial, “geometric” fashion, in 90 degree turns. As she arrives at the phone, she stops, hiding it with her head. The phone here seems to symbolise some sort of communication with the supernatural, because it is exactly at this point she turns, and then spots perhaps the most terrifying Follower of them all: an abused woman in a state of constant urination (the water motif again).

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Jay recoils, all the time visually glued to the phone. Hitting the wall, her hair waves in unreal fashion – a consequence of the ultra-slow motion, which all through the kitchen situation holds her in a nightmarish grip.
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The phone is reminiscent of how the red cloth on the wall is used in this soon-to-come scene (described in the second article).
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As Jay storms out, she touches both paintings, which, as we said, both are connected to the water motif – one gets tilted, the other falls down. The phone is still visible, as if a reminder of what she is fleeing.
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Later in the film, after she has slept with Greg at the hospital, Jay is struck by paranoia. She hurries into the house to isolate herself, and exactly as the scene ends, the phone again plays an important role in the shot. (Incidentally, we see that the phone is not properly on the hook – is this just a mistake during the shoot, or is it supposed to say something about the isolation?)

Dominant camera movements

Camera movement is exceptionally important to It Follows. In the first article we have already discussed two prominent stylistic figures, respectively a frequent forward motion (item 5) and filming transport-by-foot scenes in a pattern rhythmically alternating between shooting the characters from behind and facing the camera (item 10). Here we shall look at a few other types of cases, which often contribute decisively to the lyrical intermessos that is so important to the film’s peculiar atmosphere.

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Hunted by the Follower, the girl of the prologue has ended up on a beach. She is first hidden by the car door, but the camera then moves around the door, to remain observing the girl in extreme long shot for almost half a minute, in an icily cold gaze. The entire scene gives an extraordinarily stylised and abnormal impression.

Later, Jay is doing her make-up before her date. The below slide show is compressing a 69-second take where the camera is closing in on her in a slow curve, before it ends up in a fetishising, lingering close-up of her mirror image. The movement suggests that the mirror image, her appearance, is more important to her than herself. The mood is highly ambiguous: Jay’s innocence is emphasised – even exaggerated, since she is made up and lighted so she looks much younger than her 19 years – but her final gaze into the mirror seems fatalistic, almost resigned. Most of all she looks like a melancholy princess:

eleganse 21
After her boyfriend has fled the cinema due to the Follower threat, there is a short, distinctly atmospheric intermesso. It is constructed from many factors: the rain, a foreboding and rumbling film music, the dim light inside the car, and a camera movement panning from the driver to the passenger seat.
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This is from the sex scene during their second date. Soon Jay will meet her first Follower, bound to the wheelchair, inside the abandoned building in the background. As foreshadowing, the camera starts the sex scene with a look up at the building, before it elegantly descends to the events in the car.
eleganse 21b
Also during the trip down to the shore just before, where they sit and make out, we see the building in the background – to geographically connect the various parts of the location?

The first article (item 5) compared Mitchell to M. Night Shyamalan due to his methodical approach to form and pacing. Towards the end of It Follows Mitchell launches a very Shyamalanian manoeuvre: a “geometric” movement where the camera moves laterally in a straight line, back and forth between the characters. (This was often used in Unbreakable (2000); the form of that film is analysed in this article, and the section on lateral movements is here). The melancholy scene takes place directly after Jay and Paul’s intercourse, offering up some of the film’s most beautiful close-ups.

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(The above montage just shows some of the stations on the journey.) The camera starts on Paul, and when he turns towards Jay, it moves to capture Jay in a symmetry of sorts with Paul: identical posture and facial expression. When she turns towards him, the camera returns to capture Paul. The take ends with him returning to almost the same posture as in the start.

The climax in the swimming hall

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It Follows features a dramatic climax. The teenagers wait for the Follower in a swimming hall, where they manage to defeat it (but nobody seems sure that the victory was final). We shall start, however, with the scene where Paul gets the idea of luring the Follower to the hall. Paul yearns to protect Jay, and perhaps even more to sleep with her, but she deflects his attempt to kiss her:

basseng 1b

Then he looks up at the mirror, where a photograph of Jay hangs, taken at the swimming hall. Since it was there he kissed her as a child – her first kiss – his awareness of that seems to give him the idea. If he can help her defeat the Follower, at the location of their first kiss even, he can win the girl he has dreamed of conquering since childhood. Below the photograph lurks the picture of her father, whose body the Follower will wear during the climax. On top of everything, Jay seems to have pouting lips in the photo, as if she is tempting Paul, promising him another kiss if he can beat the Follower.

Innocence, budding sexuality, desire driven by ambiguous and “confused” intentions, incestuous undercurrents, the film’s concrete plot, the kiss that Jay just denied him – it is fascinating to see how elements interact like clockwork in this short moment of the film.

The climax has been criticised from many quarters for not maintaining the same quality as the rest of the film, according to a more narrow genre-oriented evaluation. Some of the criticism claims that the proceedings suddenly depart from Jay’s point-of-view and that we see too little of the Follower. It is correct that part of the scene is told from the other teenagers’ viewpoint, to whom the Follower is invisible – but for good reason, since this emphasises how difficult it is for the others to stop a threat they cannot see. But the scene also contains several situations seen from Jay’s point-of-view, down in the pool, with the Follower as a highly concrete threat – driven home by the below image:

basseng pov

If the climax deserves criticism, it is that the scene entails an abrupt change of tone. In addition to the engaging performances, the film’s sobriety has lent great verisimilitude to the peculiar premise. The climax belongs to another playbook entirely, and is like a hectic, highly dramatic circus number. A few questions are also surfacing: Since Paul turns out to have superhuman shooting abilities, should he not, at least, be shown to take part in the gun practice at Greg’s cabin? Paul’s plan is inspired by Jay’s photo, but should we not have been given more insight into his thought process – why does precisely this method point itself out to destroy the Follower?

The teenagers intend to lure the Follower into the pool, and then throw electrical appliances into the water to kill it by electric shock. The Follower seems to see through their plan, however, and refuses to enter the water. Instead it is throwing the appliances at Jay. Is this to kill or just drive her out of the pool? If the goal is to kill, why does the Follower not use the same method as the teenagers have planned? Why does not Jay herself die from shock when the first appliance comes flying? Is it not enough with one appliance? The youths themselves are confused about this, and the script could have spent a bit of explanatory dialogue just here. What actually happens is the following:

basseng strøm 0
(1) The Follower, which here is invisible, lifts an object (high up, in the leftmost edge); (2) now it is in the water, with the cable stretched out behind it; (3) a tongue of flame appears from the socket at the end of the cable, while (4) the hall is partly blacked out, before (5) the light immediately returns.

So the Follower is throwing the appliance so far that the contact is torn out of the socket. Is the temporary black-out of the hall an indication that something has gone wrong with the hall’s entire electric supply as a consequence of this? Why do we then also see a tongue of flame from the socket when the Follower is throwing the second appliance? Are there only two electric sockets in the hall, so that the appliances, who may all have been connected through multiple sockets (we actually see some of those before), are disconnected? Maybe we shall have to ask an electrician.

Some have also thought it odd that the Follower is shot in the head before it falls into the water, but it revives. Why does it then succumb after another head shot? Since this is a supernatural being, it leads really nowhere to speculate about this: the conclusion is probably that it is especially vulnerable when in water.

It feels slightly distasteful to descend into this kind of nit-picking in a film clearly intended as a metaphor. Nevertheless, Mitchell might have been a bit clumsy here. The climax has created false notes for some viewers at their first encounter with the film, while others have taken everything in their stride. To my eyes, the problems, if any, are confined to a short period – merely at the start of the climax – and in later viewings, the “circus number” has turned into one of the film’s highlights.

The climax is part of a longer sequence. This chapter shall concentrate on the sequence’s considerable qualities in aesthetics and mood-creation:

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Jay’s hand down in the water appears to conjure up the dissolve to the exterior shot of the building.
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A thunderstorm breaks out the same evening, but this is not merely to create a traditionally dramatic backdrop. The external circumstances also reflect the teenagers’ plan to kill the Follower – thunder with lightning and rain imply, in a purely literal way, electricity sent through water.

Mitchell makes a very daring decision before the climax: he slows the pace of the action to almost zero, devoting more than three and a half minute for preparation and waiting for the Follower to turn up. During this period Jay’s little sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) plays an aesthetic part with a talent for elegant postures:

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After Jay has taken up position down in the pool, there are also moody “tracking shots” from below, capturing the other characters.
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The play of light and the purple haze cast a sustained veil of unreality over the entire sequence.
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Fascinating visual effects from the pool surface while Jay is waiting.
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Mitchell turns Monroe’s face into a melancholy work of art.
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Then the Follower attacks, and time and again Jay barely avoids being struck by the heavy objects.
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The camera is constantly following Jay, down and up like a graceful elevator.
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Here she bleeds from a head wound, the drama amplified through surreal underwater shots.
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While Jay is dancing like in a ballet, the action is recorded both from the bottom…
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…and seen against the surface.
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The shimmering patterns of light in combination with the purple haze constantly give the action an unreal dimension. Here the Follower is first shot in the hand, and later in the head, making it fall into the water.
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Jay now attempts to hurry out of the water. Here Mitchell seems to apply a special lighting from below the water, to light her body, lending extra dramatic power to Jay’s haste.
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The Follower, however, is still in the game. It grabs Jay’s ankle to drown her. It is time for a cinematographic highlight of the film, where Jays impressionistically shimmering body struggles to escape.

But again Paul succeeds in shooting the Follower. Time for yet another Shyamalanian lateral tracking shot, back and forth, where Jay first manages to get out of the water, but then has to follow the same route back to see what has happened to the Follower. (Since she is the only one who can see it.) The nightmare refuses to let up, and the repetitive camera journey underscores this, in this slide show:

The scene’s conclusion has already been described in the second article: Jay’s hands creeping closer to the edge of the pool, where the water is soon turned overwhelmingly red by the Follower’s blood.

Awakening to unreality

The scene where Jay awakens at the hospital after having driven off the road is a brilliant tour-de-force of atmosphere, limited point-of-view and quiet paranoia. (The scene lasts four minutes and ten seconds.) This walk-through will also point out the local use of a few motifs we have dealt with in the previous articles.

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The disoriented Jay starts to get her bearings…
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…the second article showed that red objects are very important in It Follows, and as we soon shall see, there is a specific reason for shoes here…
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…Jay lifts her gaze…
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…and finds that her mother, Kelly and Yara are present. In line with the absent role of the parent generation in the film (first article, item 9), the mother’s face is partly cut by the framing. Everyone around Jay is asleep, part of a motif charted in the second article.
awake 6b
After another close-up of Jay (omitted here), she also realises that her arm is in a cast. The second article discussed the possibility that Jay’s red fingernails, as well as the letter “X” tattooed on a finger, could be symbolic stigmata of the curse. Since almost every Follower is clad in white, also the cast fits the stigma pattern. It is even on the same arm as the “X” finger and caused by an injury directly springing from the escape from the Follower.
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Jay goes on orienting herself…
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…the focus is also telling “from outside” – here it shows that Jay’s attention is moved to her temple where she has another injury. As usual, her red nails play their part…

Now the reason for the shoes being red is revealed. It is a harbinger. So far in the scene, he silence has been resounding, but suddenly Jay hears ghostly sounds of footsteps in the distance:

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Maika Monroe’s face is a study of creeping anxiety, as Jay turns towards the door.

While the sound increases in strength and everything else is total silence, a segment follows that is based on an extremely simple, yet terrifyingly effective and expressive formal construction. The following slide show dissects the segment shot by shot, movement by movement (the image with red borders marks the start of the show):

The steps turned out to come from a nurse, but David Robert Mitchell continues the construction a bit more, still supported by the camera’s quietly obsessive forward motion. As seen in countless examples in the three articles, this has to be the dominating stylistic figure in It Follows:

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A single tear falls from her eye.

With purely cinematic devices and in a manner unique to film as an art form – highly concrete, yet inscrutable and metaphorical – Mitchell drives home, with elegance and striking simplicity, that Jay’s nightmare will never end. There will always be new sounds, new threatening spaces, new corners that the Follower at any time can come around. Jay cannot take it any more:

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As if marking that a decision has been made in Jay, the camera shifts position to the other side of the bed…
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…is there a point to the fact that Jay’s two suitors are dressed in red and green? The second article talked about red for danger and green for harmony, in relation to Jay being connected to trees and vegetation. The only way to get rid of the curse is to pass it on sexually to another person. Jay has now decided on Greg as her saviour, and it is as if the combination of the camera movement and Jay’s gaze is awakening him from his slumber…
awake 35
…the dissolve is an elegant expression that a decision has been taken, from Greg’s part too.

The camera now embarks upon a very art-film-like journey, through a long take of 63 seconds, that is reminiscent of the film’s large circular motions: in the opening scene and the situation at the school already described. Almost all the tableux that the camera will now reveal seem to comment on either the film generally or present small foreshadowings of the shot’s culmination. As usual, almost no adult’s face is shown without good reason. The red brick wall between each window functions as a sort of cut between each “scene”:

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A man and a woman who are obviously interested in each other, the female smiling invitingly and flirtatiously. She wears a red cloth, but oddly enough only on one arm – can this be a play on Jay’s cast; both red and white being connected to the Follower?
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Another man and a women, one of them removing a piece of clothing (and the female is in red/purple).
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A man going away, like the Follower will lose interest in Jay after what is about to happen. (A boy in red.)
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The female uses an instrument with a probably health-inducing effect, suggesting how Jay’s life will ease after getting rid of the curse. The man in the bed may suggest how Greg will later end up in exactly the same position, killed by the Follower. (A red container; otherwise the image is dominated by white.)
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This “scene” breaks with the pattern, since we do see the face of an adult without apparent reason and there is no specific foreshadowing. But the contents on the tray seem identical to Yara’s tray in the film’s penultimate scene – could that be a point? Perhaps this tableau in its relaxed mundanity is supposed to create a contrast to the next “scene”?
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Man and woman, undressing, sexual contact, “healing” for Jay since Greg now takes over the curse. (She lies underneath as opposed to her later intercourse with Paul, where she emphasises being in control.) Does one need to point out that the camera once more in the film is closing in?
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A 35-second take: At first, Jay enjoys it, but she is unable to stay in the ecstasy and begins looking around, as if for danger. Does this foreshadow the fact that Greg is just a temporary solution to the Follower problem? The camera starts delicately closing in at the conclusion of the shot.

Afterwards comes one of the film’s most beautiful and ambiguous shots. It radiates relief and sexual satisfaction, but also suggests that she is some sort of “fallen woman”, since she has in practice prostituted herself to get rid of the curse:

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Her hair contributes to the shot’s peculiar atmosphere. She looks generally much older, almost seasoned, in strong contrast to the childlikeness of the make-up scene. As a whole, the tableau gives a painterly impression, as if she is posing for an artist. For once the camera is stationary and Jay is motionless, as if the shot was a still photo. The rather massively red curtain is also interesting.

Suddenly the mood changes abruptly, emphasised by an almost comical, jaunty film music. We are now part of Greg’s happy-go-lucky, capricious and womanising world. We have the feeling that Greg does not really believe in the curse, but anyway it suits him fine to sleep with someone. Like in the scenes where Jay swims out to the boys in the boat and Paul cruises after prostitutes, the film merely suggests the nature of Greg’s intentions. When he later visits Jay at the hospital, he is again “posing” as her boyfriend, says nothing about having had sex with someone, and maintains that he has not noticed any Follower. In reality he has only bought himself time – perhaps without really having found it necessary.

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The scene has three cuts, and the camera is also closing in internally in every shot.
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The two other girls give an almost comical impression, in their purple “uniforms”, as if numbers in a row of girls, competing for Greg’s favour.
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A solid bite of the bread roll and a calculating glance – food and sexual appetite.
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Back at the hospital: the sexually frustrated Paul is relegated to the corridor and shot against a naked wall…
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…while Greg is basking in Jay’s attention, shot against a flower, as if a trophy…
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…Paul is definitely not satisfied with the state of things.


One can never be sure about how many of these analytical finds coincide with David Robert Mitchell‘s intention. They are, however, in line with the spirit of It Follows and its exploration of themes. These three articles hopefully succeed in demonstrating the richness of ideas one single film can contain.

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