“Casual viewers are going to find it weird, poorly acted, nonsensical, sexist, weird, not scary, confusing and did I mention weird?”–Amazon review of The Love Witch
FEATURING: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddel, Jared Sanford
PLOT: Elaine, a mysterious young woman who, we later learn, is a practicing witch, motors into a northern California town and sets up residence in a Victorian house. She casts spells which cause a succession of men to fall in love with her, but her beaus always fail to meet her fairytale romantic expectations and come to bad ends. As her old Satanist cronies attempt to draw her back into their circle, she finally finds a man she believes will be “the one”—the detective investigating the very disappearances she’s linked to.
- After her debut feature, the 1960s/70s softcore sexploitation parody Viva (2007), Anna Biller worked on The Love Witch for years, not only writing the script and directing and editing but also designing all the costumes and composing the medieval music score. She even spent months weaving the pentagram rug and creating Elaine’s spell book with hand-drawn calligraphy.
- For authenticity, The Love Witch was shot in the soon-to-be-extinct 35 mm film format.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: A Samantha Robinson closeup (pick one). She doesn’t need a spell beyond those eyes, outlined in wicked mascara and smoldering electric blue eye shadow, to get a man in bed—but she’ll cast one anyway, just to make sure.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pink tea room; jimsonweed rainbow sex; tampon/urine brew
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The familiar but unreal world created in The Love Witch is so obsessively singular—brewed from pulpy romance novels, perverse witchcraft fantasies, feminist dialectics, and glitzy Technicolor melodramas—that it can only rightfully described as “weird.”
Brief scene from The Love Witch
COMMENTS: The Love Witch is thematically dense and symbolically rich without ever trying to be especially tricky or obscure. It hides its meaning in plain sight. On the surface, it looks like a simple parody of a certain breed of 1960s movie, utilizing anachronistic cinematography and out-of-fashion melodrama in a way that appears to invite either nostalgic recognition or self-satisfied mockery. Yet the idea of femininity Elaine proposes—women dolling themselves up to tantalize and attract men, trading the promise of sex (and actual sex) as coin to purchase the love they crave—reflects a reality that is still with us. The movie adopts an old-fashioned style as a way to expose old-fashioned attitudes that persist today. If Elaine’s dress, makeup, and personal style appear anachronistic, her underlying attitude—the need to play the game of seduction in order to attract a mate—is still a routine, if rarely acknowledged, fact of life for every woman who puts on blush and eyeliner every morning.
One obvious stylistic feature of The Love Witch is the campy acting. Elaine speaks as if she’s always lost inside an interior world of hearts and unicorns, making her sound insincere even when she’s at her most heartfelt. Other actors take an overly broad, TV-melodrama approach. This technique helps sustain the film’s sense of otherworldliness. But the other, and far more impressive, stylistic feature is the unreal, anachronistic, and impressively detailed mise-en-scene. A girly-girl café where the clientele all dress in pink and white with flowery hats—looking more like bridesmaids than ladies out for a spot of tea—while ethereal blondes play harps and sing medieval love hymns. The local burlesque house, in a lusty red-on-red color scheme, where dancers with feather boas never take it all off but ensorcell the drooling males nonetheless. The Renaissance Faire run by witches, where Elaine and her date “accidentally” end up wed in a mock pagan ceremony. The minutiae of Elaine’s witchcraft rituals, which at one point involves her honoring a corpse with her urine and a used tampon. Clever details and decorative ideas abound in nearly every scene. Reversing the usual seduction stereotype, Elaine serves her target’s drink in a comically oversized brandy snifter to decrease his inhibitions. Trish finds Elaine’s witchcraft altar full of bizarre potions and magickal totems, then walks into her adjoining bedroom to discover, oriented in exact mirror image position, a vanity set out with wig, perfume, and makeup.
The smart script is not simplistic in its satire; it prides itself on creating and holding contradictory views. Shots emphasize Samantha Robinson’s desirability—her impeccable makeup, her matching accessories, her jet black Rapunzel wig, the composed way she sucks on a cigarette as if she’s being watched even when she’s alone, the private lingerie collection that would make Frederic of Hollywood blush. But do these decorative accoutrements only reinforce her character’s shallowness, or are they really glamorous constructions of womanhood, to be appreciated for their genuine beauty? Elaine and Trish toss out competing ideas about femininity that sometimes sound laughably old-fashioned, but actually reflect contemporary female dilemmas. The script trusts us to sort out which are which—or at least, to engage in an ongoing dialogue that may be less settled than it appears. Witchcraft is shown, on one hand, as harmless, New Agey neo-paganism, no more or less ritually ridiculous than Christianity, but it’s also a source of implied abuse and exploitation, and a real threat to the community. And of course, the biggest contradiction of all is Elaine, a mixture of idealism and ruthless cunning, simultaneously a victim and a serial victimizer, who expresses naïve ideas with a simple conviction that no one can effectively refute.
Although there is full-frontal nudity aplenty from the extras, and some butt-shots from one of the male victims, star Samantha Robinson never actual gets naked. She always has her long raven hair draped over her breasts, and wears a flesh-colored thong during the Satanic ceremony where she becomes a love sacrifice. While I suspect (without knowing) that this had to do with Samantha Robinson’s contractually negotiated modesty, the psychological effect is intriguing. Elaine’s carefully crafted image deliberately attracts men’s eyes, but actually refuses to yield to its desires. Just as men fail to give her character the true love she wants, she fails to give the male viewer the true pornographic nudity he wants. It may seem like a minor, and possibly quite accidental, point, but in a movie that’s centered around surface beauty and frustrated desire, featuring an actress portraying a woman who lives for seduction, Elaine’s reluctance to strip off that final layer of appearance becomes another token of teasing mystery.
Because the stylistic world Anna Biller creates in The Love Witch is cinematically familiar—with its widescreen compositions, brazen color schemes, cigarette smoking femme fatales and square-jawed cops—many are tempted to go hunting for movie references and homages. Indeed, I was reminded of The Birds (in Elaine’s rear-projection convertible ride up the California coast), (the nude witchcraft rituals), The Trip (the psychedelic kaleidoscope lens when Elaine seduces the hippie professor) and TV’s “Dragnet” (in the sappy hard-boiled dialogue of the police squad room); others cite , Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as inspirations. But none of the scenes Biller stages are outright allusions or in-jokes. She absorbs the period style—particularly its vivacious use of the full chromatic scale—without simply referencing a checklist of favorite films; you’ll search in vain for nods to her specific influences. The Love Witch is a swinging Sixties-era Technicolor B-movie that could have been, but in an alternate universe at a tangent to our own. The style is adopted not as mere homage, but as a way to expose anachronistic ideas about femininity that persist despite the change in cinematic fashions. The biggest compliment I can give Biller is to say that she does for 1960s Technicolor spectacles what did for silents and early talkies: uses antiquated techniques to create a timeless, abstract setting that reflects her own personality. It’s gratifying to see her receive critical praise for this monumentally inventive and deceptively intelligent feminist statement dressed in Satanic sexploitation robes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The deliberately stilted acting and the baroque artificiality of the settings — a potpourri of New Age, Victoriana, midcentury American Square and Renaissance Faire hippie — bespeak a high degree of self-consciousness, but it would be a mistake to view the movie simply as a spoof or a goof. Its humor is too subtle and strange for that, and the emotions that ground the story are too strong and complicated. The tale itself often drifts away from the suspense-driven logic of conventional horror into realms of gauzy romance, surreal grotesquerie and demented trippiness.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“[Biller] has no trouble stretching the story’s gender politics in continually fascinating directions or sustaining its woozy vibe until the bitter end… the degree of consistency on display here is only possible because every department is on the same page, from the marvelously florid costumes (which Biller designed herself) to the performances of each supporting actor, all of whom is attuned to the weirdo vibes the movie is putting out there.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)
The Love Witch – Distributor Oscilloscope’s Love Witch page has stills, the trailer and a press kit
IMDB LINK: The Love Witch (2016)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“I’m Actually Trying to Create a Film for Women”: Anna Biller on The Love Witch – The longest and most detailed of the director’s many Love Witch interviews is found in Filmmaker magazine
The Love Witch director Anna Biller: ‘I’m in conversation with the pornography all around us’ – Essay-style interview with The Guardian
Birth.Movies.Interview.: Writer/Director Anna Biller On THE LOVE WITCH – Fun interview with the director, particularly the end where she considers possible sequel concepts
The Love Witch – Cinematographer David Mullen posted updates on his work on the film in the cinematographer.com forums—great stuff for anyone interested in the technical aspects of the film
Mark Kermode reviews The Love Witch – The British film critic dubs The Love Witch “Douglas Sirk’s Vampiros Lesbos” and talks about how his interpretation differs from Biller’s (YouTube)
Fear of the Female Planet, or Why I Love The Love Witch – Director Allison Anders rhapsodizes about the film
THE LOVE WITCH will NOT bang you if you talk & text at the movies. – Humorous public service message from an in-character Samantha Robinson
LIST CANDIDATE: THE LOVE WITCH (2016) – Our initial review of the movie during its theatrical run
DVD INFO: Oscilloscope pulled out all the stops for their Love Witch DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) releases. It all begins with the four-way commentary track featuring (in order of contribution) Biller, cinematographer M. David Mullen , star Robinson, and actor/producer Jared Sanford (who played the warlock Gahan), a 10-minute behind-the-scenes (which features more Biller commentary), and another 10-minute interview with cinematographer Mullen (which gets very technical, particularly in regards to lighting). A lot of information in the extras duplicates the commentary, but there’s almost a half-hour of extended, deleted or alternate scenes, and, to top it all off, Samantha Robinson’s burlesque-style dance audition, and an unused trailer to go along with the official one. (There are also trailers for other Oscilloscope releases). All in all, it’s about as meaty a release as you’ll see outside of a Criterion or Arrow release.