Finding the right words to describe The Love Witch is a challenge, mainly because it’s so difficult to parse what it’s trying to be.
My first instinct upon finishing the film was to call it indulgent; it is 80 minutes of gimmick dragged across two hours of movie. (Calling it a “gimmick” or a “spoof” at all even sounds wrong, as the film is totally committed to its homage.) In the interest of disclosure, I may have made that decision by the opening credits, where the name Anna Biller appears as writer, producer, director, art director, set designer, costumer, and I’m sure several other titles.
But Biller is aware of the lack of modesty, the film points it out and fits it to the main character thematically. Men make obnoxious, self-satisfying films all the time, and they are praised as visionaries and innovators. Biller seems to use this as her justification — which is hard to argue with. Similarly, her main character uses the failings of male desire as the reasoning for her behavior. Which brings up the other issue that makes The Love Witch difficult to define: I’ve heard this described as a “feminist film” but also as a “feminist narrative by someone who doesn’t necessarily like feminism.” Even after watching the film, I’m not sure I’m qualified to make that call either way, but I will say that The Love Witch seems to muddle more points than it makes.
Set in the present but filmed in a style that combines ‘60s Technicolor classics with ‘70s Italian horror, The Love Witch follows Elaine Price (Samantha Robinson), a practicing witch who takes refuge in the Northern California coast after her husband’s death. Seeking a man to keep her company, Elaine uses love magic to enact trysts with a naturalist English professor, a married pilot, and the relentlessly square-jawed detective who is investigating her for the murder of the aforementioned English teacher. See, Elaine may or may not be able to control the reaction men have to her love potions, and after a while, she tends to wind up unsatisfied, and they tend to end up dead.
Elaine observes early that she exists to “give men their fantasy”, and that is what she does, allowing them to project whatever desires they wish onto her. But she also does this while pointedly manipulating them, explaining that men are like children who will do anything you want if given the right toys. Somehow, this strategy doesn’t work out for her, and it becomes apparent that this anti-heroine doesn’t actually believe it. When the sensitive professor becomes intensely needy and whines that it’s been so hard to find a woman who is both smart and pretty, Elaine deadpans “Life has been tough, hasn’t it?” with such abject disdain on her face that you actually cringe.
But even Elaine’s coven of witches seem to have their own backwards patriarchy. In an admirable touch, the male witches in this film all seem to be like Male Feminists who have only paid attention to the parts of feminism about “sex positivity” and use this to their advantage. Although the film asserts that witchcraft is a celebration of traditionally repressed female sexuality, there’s still a predatory nature about all the men here who aren’t Elaine’s victims. Elaine subverts this by being predatory right back. Or at least, she convinces herself she does. In an impassioned speech, she explains that men have used her long enough, now she uses them to get what she wants. This begs the question: what is it that Elaine actually wants? When she offers this unrepressed sexuality, who is she actually doing this for? She opens and closes the movie wanting a white knight to take her away on a horse — leading to a scene where our characters stumble across a Renaissance Faire that goes on forever — but it doesn’t appear that’s a real desire.
The question becomes “What does she get out of this movie?” followed by “What am I getting out of this movie?”
Form-wise, you’re getting a lot. If you’re a lover of camp, this movie has it in spades. Full of extended burlesque dances and extreme close-ups featuring heavily-glossed lips screaming in horror, The Love Witch knows the tone it wants and fully celebrates its anachronistic nature. It’s a film built on near-cartoonish color palettes and finds every opportunity to revel in the 35mm grandeur. Continuing with the theme of opulence, two characters agree to meet for tea and wind up dining at a pristinely purple lady’s ballroom, complete with harpist and feathered hats. The film invites you to enjoy its purposefully stiff acting and intentionally-inconsistent editing. There’s beauty in this badness, and rather than going with the Sharknado-style bad for bad’s sake, there’s also a purpose. It’s a film meant to evoke a certain tone which resonates with a particular kind of film geek, its tongue is placed firmly in its cheek and its presentation very deliberate.
In interviews and synopses, Anna Biller has made the case that a degree of narcissism is essential in feminism, and therefore The Love Witch proudly boasts the title of “vanity project.” Biller is a true auteur, and as is the case with most people who bear that title, it would be more enjoyable to watch their work if someone else had been around to rein them in. In Biller’s case, this culminates in unbearably long sequences and rambling, stilted monologues. That being said, The Love Witch is a curiosity whose good qualities more than justify its existence, even if it does overstay its welcome more than a little. This film isn’t for everyone, but it deserves the cult following it will hopefully get. There’s enough statement here that some viewers are sure to connect, and won’t mind that they’re in a world completely under Anna Biller’s control. For these followers, I salute The Love Witch, even if I’m not wholly sure I understand it.Liked This? Share It!