I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since I first saw the trailer last August. I bought a ticket to see it at FrightFest in London, but in the end, couldn’t attend, so I was thrilled when it finally came out in cinemas and streaming websites in the UK last week and on DVD today.
The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (a beguiling Samantha Robinson), a beautiful woman who is unlucky in love. Taking matters into her own hands, she uses witchcraft to control her romantic destiny, with disastrous consequences. Although she has no problem bewitching men with her seductive beauty and charm, her fatal flaw is failing to understand that a love spell does not result in true love and a fairy tale ‘happy ever after’, but instead turns her conquests into lovesick emotional wrecks. She uses her lovers as pawns in her game, playing the role of Stepford Wife to catch them in her web, before ultimately becoming irritated with them when they get too needy. It’s a clever role reversal of the stereotypical man who ditches the woman when she becomes too clingy or seeks commitment.
The film is completely unique its look and feel. It does pay homage to a certain aesthetic of the 60s and 70s in its cinematic style, and especially in the stunning costumes and heightened acting, but from a refreshingly modern and feminist angle. Auteur Anna Biller shows her passion for cinematic history and she did years of research on witchcraft and practiced solitary magic, so she is not depicting the craft from an outsider’s view. Biller designed all the luscious sets, including the beautiful Victorian tea room and Elaine’s witchy apartment, which we are told, was inspired by the Thoth tarot. I particularly love the purple damask wallpaper in Elaine’s bedroom, the apothecary style shelves and bench where Elaine cooks up her potions, and the pentagram rug.
The Love Witch is sumptuous to look at – Biller really went to town with the detail – and as a result, I was spellbound much like Elaine’s doomed lovers. It mixes deadpan comedy and horror perfectly, but I don’t think it could be categorised as such. I certainly don’t think it’s a pastiche. Really, I believe, it’s quite a tragic tale about a delusional woman who cannot separate fantasy from reality. We see and hear evidence that Elaine has a history of abuse, and that she has probably created this ideal for herself as a way of holding power over men and protecting herself.
The film is shot in 35 mm and uses many of the techniques used in classic old films. It is not a realistic film, nor could it be, because, for those 121 minutes, we are living in Elaine’s fantasy world. One of her lovers tells her “what you call love is a borderline personality disorder”, and we see this in her emotional detachment from other people and her total lack of responsibility for her actions. She completely disregards the Wiccan Rede of An harm it none, do what ye will. In other words, Elaine practices magic that changes people’s will and eventually harms them. She is ruthless in her search for her Prince Charming.
I think it’s important that Biller made Elaine, her tragic femme fatale a witch, for what other symbol is s0 pertinent in female history? Women, in particular, were singled out in witch persecutions because men feared their innately feminine traits, traits such as intuition, creation and an affinity to nature. In Victorian society, the dichotomy of the angel and the whore was a common theme. Women have always been polarised, but witches transgress this in their autonomy and in their ability to shapeshift, whether metaphorically or literally. With glamour and magic, Elaine is able to become powerful. One of the definitions of glamour is that it is an enchantment, it is magic. We know the power that make up gives to us. It’s no wonder the beauty industry is worth £17 billion in the UK alone. Elaine knows she is gorgeous, but she also relies on wigs and heavy make up to achieve a certain look.
The glamorous woman is often the victim of the male gaze in films, particularly in films such as the Hammer Horror movies of the 60s and 70s, which lingered on the female characters and in particular their naked flesh. This film does not dwell on female nudity, it does not feel gratuitous, and in fact, men are shown nude here just as often as the women are. When Elaine falls for a guy, we see a close-up of her eyes, of her intense gaze on them.
There is a prolonged Renaissance scene which some reviewers have deemed unnecessary, yet I think it’s an important scene in showing the audience just how detached from reality Elaine really is. We see her fairy tale come true; a ‘play’ marriage with her as the radiant princess being led away on a unicorn by her dream prince. But we also see that the object of her affection is merely ‘playing along’ and has no illusions about romance, but instead harbors a rather pessimistic view of love and women in general.
There is one scene in a burlesque bar where the drunken punters turn on Elaine and the fear of a modern day reenactment of the classic ‘kill the witch’ scenario genuinely left me unsettled. It captures the undercurrent of creepiness which I think permeates through those old films, behind the paint-like fake blood and flashing of bare flesh. It is also timely, given the recent US election, Trump’s presidency and the resulting women’s marches worldwide.
This film could be viewed initially as a period piece but it is actually set in the modern day; the aesthetic mirrors the old-fashioned behaviour which Elaine thinks men desire; playing the role of the whore in the bedroom and the angel in the kitchen. Although there are some modern cars in the film, it’s still a shock when Trish, Elaine’s neighbour, pulls out a mobile phone. It’s akin to the helicopter arriving at the end of the French fairy tale film, Donkey Skin, which I’d assumed was set in the middle ages.
Anna Biller is an exciting filmmaker for women and says she will continue to make films for a female audience. In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “All women’s pictures. That’s where I’m heading next.” I’m looking forward to her future projects, especially her next film, which will be her take on the Bluebeard fairy tale, and I’m keen to check out her first feature-length film Viva, which is available on demand from her website. In many ways, The Love Witch is a refreshingly honest movie, largely because of its female director. I hope this becomes commonplace in an industry still largely run by men.