Falling in love with Anna Biller’s The Love Witch
The campy, loving homage to the heyday of glorious technicolor relays a vital feminist message.
The Love Witch opens with a beautiful woman driving a red Ford Mustang along a lonely California highway. If we didn’t know better, the blue-eye-shadowed protagonist could be looking into the lens of any number of vintage male filmmakers: Hitchcock, Dario Argento or George A. Romero. But if you blink, as she does the classic rearview mirror shot, you might miss the fact that her world is not all it seems.
Anna Biller wrote, directed and very carefully constructed the universe where The Love Witch resides, a place that sits amongst the redwood trees of Northern California deconstructing gender, female sexuality and glamor throughout its (slightly long) 158 minutes. Using 35mm stock and nearly all traditional filmic techniques, Anna Biller ruled her set like an army drill sergeant, engineering almost everything we see, impressively including costumes, set design, editing, and even music composition.
Seven years in the making, the movie follows Elaine, a beautiful young witch on her quest to find the perfect mate. Armed with spells that work just a touch too well and a general disdain for anyone not meeting her exacting standards, she blocks her pathway to true love. While The Love Witch may share stylistic cues with the sexploitation films of the 60s and 70s, it is anything but exploitative in its message.
With the meticulous set design, costume design, and glorious color of the print, the film can come on like a full-blown homage at times. However, the protagonist’s antihero positioning gives the show a modern twist. Elaine, played to perfection by Samantha Robinson, is a pathological narcissist – which can make watching uncomfortable. You find yourself loving and being revolted by the titular character in equal measures. This confusion may be where the film’s core message holds its power, with a skillful deconstruction of the war of the sexes.
When her backstory unfolds, we see Elaine as a survivor, a woman who has been persistently used and abused by men. By understanding that this woman’s revenge is also her undoing – and not her redemption (the “love redeems” trope) – we feel sympathetic with her struggle. In several fast-edited sequences, Biller pairs typically feminine iconography with violent visions, opening up conversations about gender norms and the societal expectations of life as a woman. Elaine may look vintage, but her actions and motivations make her a thoroughly modern and complex witch.
The potent mix of M. David Mullen’s cinematography with Biller’s auteur vision gives us a film that looks almost identical to the vintage influences it plays tribute to. The love potion scenes are straight out of the seminal masterpiece The Trip, while other set pieces could be Giallo, Polanski or even Herschell Gordon Lewis. Biller cites Hitchcock’s Marnie as a direct influence. The editorial decision to include modern cars and props such as cell phones is nothing short of a masterstroke. When we see these visual cues, we’re reminded this is a universe of Anna Biller’s creation, a jarring contrast of our here-and-now and the issues we face everyday.
As the film reaches its climax, a new theme emerges: society’s treatment of outsiders, in particular women. With “witch hunts” now commonplace in online culture, it’s very easy for us to identify with The Love Witch in her final hour of need. Despite her many flaws, we feel sympathy for Elaine’s suffering.
When the credits finally roll, it’s wise to remember that The Love Witch only influences her victims. By confronting their emotions, they bring about their own destiny. If we follow Elaine’s example, we too can be a catalyst for change through action. Elaine shows us (a little too enthusiastically at times) that we don’t have to be the victim. By retelling the story, reclaiming the power, and rethinking the situation, we can create a world that works for us – and if we do, wouldn’t Elaine be proud?
Image credit: Anna Biller The Love Witch (2016)