The Love Witch

Anna Biller is a filmmaker with a distinctive aesthetic who carefully crafts the look and sound of her movies to evoke a specific period glamour. Her first feature Viva (2007) was a loving tribute to the sexploitation movies of the early 1970s, celebrating a look apparently modelled specifically on 1972 Playboy magazine while interrogating the underlying masculine assumptions of the Playboy lifestyle from a female perspective. The Love Witch (2016) steps back in time a few years to combine the look of Elizabeth Taylor’s English movies of the 1960s with contemporary Hammer productions as the setting for a young witch’s quest for love.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) leaves San Francisco to start again in Arcata, California, after her ex-husband’s death by poisoning led to uncomfortable questions. She moves into her friend Barbara’s spare apartment in a Victorian house looked after by interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell) and begins selling her preparations to the local witchcraft shop. Swinging into action in search of the perfect man, her enthusiastic over-application of magic leaves a trail of bodies in her wake as she attempts to find The One who will fulfil her dreams of love.

Carrying out her search with the single-minded dedication of a woman pure of heart, unable to conceive how anybody could have a problem with her actions, Elaine has the potential to come across as a comic figure but is actually quite tragic. Raised by her father to believe that her appearance is the sum of her personal value, then married to a man with unrealistic expectations that she keep both herself and her home immaculate at all times, after her divorce she found sanctuary with a local coven of witches led by Gahan (Jared Sanford) and his partner Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum). Although she regained a sense of female empowerment through her association with the coven and self-identification as a witch, Gahan’s concept of empowerment is specifically gendered in a way which matches the traditional societal values in which Elaine was raised, characterising women’s power as being solely based around the sexual manipulation of men (whereas men’s power lies in being dominant and having their every whim pandered to). Not coincidentally, this viewpoint entitles Gahan to have sexual access to any female member of the coven in a ceremonial context, an abuse of power with which his partner Barbara is complicit.

Trish provides an important contrast to Elaine’s conception that a successful relationship requires a woman to conform herself to a man’s every fantasy and desire. She is appalled by Elaine’s willing self-abnegation and espouses the healthier concept that a marriage should be a meeting of equals in which both partners have a right for their needs to be considered. Making it clear that her husband Richard (Robert Seeley) can’t just have sex with her whenever he wants, she inadvertently leaves an unfortunate opening that Elaine will later exploit, but despite the unfortunate consequences the movie never depicts Trish’s independence as a fault.

Elaine’s attempts to find Mr Right illustrate the incompatible contradictions at the heart of her extreme polar conception of male vs female. She orchestrates the seduction of her first conquest Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) through a carefully planned choreography of performative femininity. After being driven to his house in the country and insisting that he down the contents of a hip flask (her love potion), she fends off his advances so that she can cook him a steak dinner, demonstrating her value as the dream housewife. After they’ve eaten she performs a striptease and takes him to bed. Unfortunately the hallucinogenic component of the potion leads him to suffer a complete emotional meltdown after they’ve had sex and, because her conception of the perfect man is built around a stoic stereotype, Elaine finds herself put off by the very emotional connection she was so desperate to achieve. (Even more unfortunately, the toxic nature of jimson weed leads Wayne to have a heart attack, requiring a surprisingly blasé Elaine to bury him in the garden.)

To a certain extent, the movie also explores the positive and negative aspects associated with the identification of women as witches. Biller has stated in interviews that all women are witches, and in a deleted scene, Elaine talks to the less sexually confident Trish about how she doesn’t believe magic is anything more than using one’s resources to impose one’s will on the world, suggesting that her lipstick is a form of magic wand enhancing her allure and that the act of convincing somebody to do what you ask them is a form of magic spell. This belief in your own power is the more positive aspect of witchcraft put forwards by Gahan’s coven – it’s the reduction of women’s sphere of power to their own sexuality and nothing else which poisons the concept. The uglier consequences of this view are shown late in the film when the hostile townsfolk accompany their cries of “burn the witch!” with the removal of their belts, preparing to exert their control over her power in a scene which is thankfully interrupted before it can proceed.

Anna Biller is unquestionably the auteur of this film: she fills the roles of director, writer, producer, composer, editor, production designer, art director, set decorator, set designer and costume designer. Her glamour aesthetic is on display at every level of the production. The screen is filled with saturated colours, pristine whites and deep blacks. The sets are beautiful, especially Elaine’s apartment filled with occult paraphernalia and paintings, explicitly designed to match the colour palate of Lady Frieda Harris’s Thoth Tarot deck (more generally known as the Crowley deck). The costumes are gorgeous, with Elaine wearing some fabulously eye-melting designs. The all-female tearoom set is a fantasia of pinks and lavenders where women with magnificent hats dine to the accompaniment of a harpist. And there is the surprise introduction later in the film of a Renaissance Fair setting as Elaine and her beau encounter the coven clad in medieval garb, presiding over a pseudo-wedding complete with unicorn, utilising imagery arising directly from Elaine’s romantic fantasies.

Strategically chosen extracts from soundtracks by Ennio Morricone and Piero Piccioni (among others) contribute to the atmosphere of another time conjured by Biller’s visual choices, evoking the romance and psycho-thriller films of a bygone era. But despite an aesthetic which insists that we are in another time, The Love Witch is decidedly set in the modern day – a fact which only becomes apparent about 90 minutes in when Trish pulls a mobile phone out of her purse. It’s as if the entire world of the film is being filtered through Elaine’s perspective, a world of old-fashioned glamour informed by an era in which her outdated conception of gender roles was more dominant. In this context, the deliberately non-naturalistic, slightly stiff performance style of the actors almost comes across as an expression of Elaine’s inability to truly understand how other people work.

The Love Witch isn’t for everyone – its leisurely pace across the two-hour running time may try some people’s patience, and its detachment from modern styles of acting and design may be alienating. But Biller’s commitment to an overall aesthetic which speaks to some of my own tastes has me firmly on her side and I hope that there won’t be another 9-year gap between this film and her next one.

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