Anna Biller’s The Love Witch defies easy description. Some movies spring from a singular vision, and this is one of them: Biller wrote, directed, and designed the weird little film, and that last piece is important, because everything about this movie depends on its look.
The Love Witch is lit and shot to look like a 1960s Technicolor film, with costumes and sets designed by Biller to evoke a vaguely psychedelic fairy tale, slash lighthearted self-aware horror story, slash queasy feminist psychosexual dramedy.
If that bizarre combination appeals to you, you’re in luck. Because while The Love Witch leans heavily on its inspirations, it isn’t like anything you’ve seen before.
The Love Witch is a campy parable of feminism and witchery
The film opens on Elaine (Samantha Robinson) driving up the coast to a new life in a quaint California town after the end of a relationship. (Or so she says; in flashbacks it looks less like a breakup and more like a murder under questionable circumstances.) She’s pulled over by a hunky cop who will become important later in the story.
In the meantime, she moves into a rental house filled with kitschy paintings that draw on occult imagery and makes friends with Trish (Laura Waddell), with whom she has tea at an all-women’s tea shop that is the embodiment of pink frilliness.
Elaine wants nothing more than to attract a man who will love her devotedly, and to that end, she sets up a potion-concocting station in her house, having been trained in the ways of witchcraft already. She’s trained in the ways of attracting and keeping a man, too — remaking yourself to be what he wants, finding ways to fulfill all of his desires, no matter what they are.
Elaine does attract men easily, beginning with a genial hippie professor type named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise). However, when she conjures their everlasting devotion, which makes them feel depths of emotion that aren’t "natural" for a man, she tires of their clinginess. The consequences, for the men, at least, are dire.
I could go on describing the plot, but it’s profoundly beside the point. There are some scenes of conjuring (involving various states of undress from semi- to complete), some of death, a thread involving a few scenes in a police precinct in which the requisite jokes about coffee are made. There are tampon jokes. One sequence is set at something like a Renaissance Faire.
The plot is more or less a chronicle of Elaine snagging and then disposing of a man, mixed in with some witchcraft and outraged villagers. But the tale is less interesting than the aesthetic experiment.
The Love Witch evokes the 1960s, with a thoroughly 2010s flair
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, The Love Witch pays tribute to movies and pulpy novels from days gone by, and that is the source of its charm. The actors deliver their lines with stiffness and deliberation, and the film is edited in a deliberately awkward way — shots are held too long or not long enough, continuity takes a hit here and there — to evoke the qualities of a low-budget exploitation film.
But though The Love Witch mostly looks like it’s set in the 1960s, with cars and clothing belonging to the era, there are hints here and there that it’s meant to be a thoroughly modern story. (Sleekly contemporary cell phones exist in this world, for one.) So while Elaine’s fixation on attracting a man sounds retrograde — her new pal Trish says it sounds like she’s been "brainwashed by the patriarchy" — and is played with absolute sincerity, we are in on the joke, and so is this movie.
The Love Witch has been described as a story about the true price of the patriarchy — which is technically true, but makes the film sound much more serious than it is. The movie does call up the history of witchcraft (or a campy version of it, anyhow) as a revolt against male-dominated systems, especially the medieval marriage of the state and the church, that elevate female sexuality as a source of power.
But I’d wager the audience for a small, self-aware movie like The Love Witch already has strong feminist leanings. So the real fun of The Love Witch isn’t any message about feminism or the patriarchy (though it’s kind of clever to imagine it as a racy after-school special). It’s in Biller’s ability to evoke her influences with such spot-on accuracy that even someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time watching Technicolor horror from the 1960s can feel instinctive recognition. It’s deliciously campy, sometimes shocking, and totally unconventional.
Still, Biller’s choice to set her story in an ambiguous time and place is a canny one. Because even if we acknowledge movements around patriarchy and feminism from the 1960s to the 2010s, we also know that human nature doesn’t change all that much. And what heterosexual woman doesn’t on some level recall the feeling of pining after a man, only to regret it? The Love Witch knows exactly what it’s doing, and it’s best to just surrender to its spell.
The Love Witch launched in limited theaters on November 11.