An alluring outsider arrives in a new town. People start to disappear. Rumours of murder begin to circulate. The cop on the case is all hard-boiled masculinity, but he has a weakness for women and his loyalties are split. The tropes are classic noir, but Anna Biller's new thriller subverts them with a distinctly feminine twist.
The Love Witch is a playful, plush and gory romp about a young sorceress who cruises into a coastal California town, desperate to lure a new love.
Elaine, played by Samantha Robison, is fleeing the mysterious death of her ex-husband. Disappointed by men in her past and the deficit between how they see her and how she wants to be seen, she's turned to love spells to achieve her romantic dreams. Trippy sex scenes and Wiccan rituals follow, along with a dash of magic involving a used tampon. Soon, Elaine's paramours find themselves enchanted. And then they find themselves dead.
Unable to handle the intense feelings the young witch has stirred in them, and proving themselves inadequate for Elaine, they die of curious causes that the film leaves purposely ambiguous. Is it the potions? Or can they just not handle a powerful woman taking control?
Through arch dialogue and a complete conviction in its retro set (inspired by the Thoth tarot deck, and handmade – down to the pentagram rug – by Biller herself) the film is a camp tragicomedy whose overall effect somehow manages to be totally sincere. A Hammer Horror movie where the monster is, if not the patriarchy, then patriarchy's Frankenstein: a woman driven mad and murderous by trying to cater to male desire.
In the Western imagination, witches are often anchored in misogynistic anxieties around female agency. But we have always been as likely to covet as well as cower from them – something Anna Biller knows well.
"Elaine represents two things," she tells me over Skype. "One is the fear of female sexuality and female power. The other is the strength that women feel when they own their sexuality and allure." Elaine, who looks like Edwige Fenech crossed with Lana del Rey, has the kind of face that acts like a mirror. As a female viewer you can project yourself onto her and feel infused with the character's irresistible charms.
"That's something I like to feel when I'm watching beautiful women on screen. I like to feel that I am that woman. I have that beauty, I have that power. It's a kind of narcissistic attachment," Biller agrees. She says that when she was making films in college she had an epiphany about how to create art. "Be true to yourself and who you really are, but also, be true to yourself as a woman." For the young filmmaker, that still felt radical. The narcissistic identification that she'd grown to love watching older movies – raised on a diet of VHS tapes and visits to old prop warehouses – wasn't really present in contemporary films. So she vowed to make work that dealt with her life experience, and, crucially, to make things that gave her pleasure.
Biller admits that the film is designed to produce a different effect on women and men. A lot of the early reviewers were male critics who focused primarily on the movie's style; Biller's ornately crafted sets and the tropes she borrowed from horror and giallo movies. It's a source of frustration for the filmmaker, who evokes those genres to subvert them rather than to pay homage. She says it's been funny because the moments a lot of male reviewers are saying "this is where the film drags" are the moments she sees as anchoring the film thematically, and the ones female viewers most respond to.
"For men, they get this incredibly stunning woman to look at, but on the other hand there's nothing emotionally gratifying for them. It just makes them surly," she laughs. Many of these moments are discussions about love and female selfhood, with Trish, Elaine's new friend, doubling as her foil. When Elaine discloses her thoughts on how to get a man to fall in love with her, Trish tells her that she sounds as though she's been brainwashed by the patriarchy.
Biller is very clear about distinguishing between a woman discovering and owning her sexuality and a woman feeling societally or financially pressured into becoming a sexualised being. The film's core theme concerns an age-old dance between feminine dichotomies. Men in the movie lament that they can't find an intellectual woman who attracts them sexually, or a woman who turns them on and offers stimulating conversation. For all the time she spends making herself pliant and doll-like, what's really bubbling in Elaine's cauldron is rage against these fabricated polarities. "A single woman has so many dimensions within her. We're not like these stereotypes that men make of us," Biller says, adding that she drew on her own life and love experiences writing The Love Witch; relationships where she didn't feel seen and an adolescence surrounded by girls anxiously vying for male attention.
I tell Biller that I sometimes felt like a witch growing up, and she says she did too. For her, part of it was the appeal of having power, but it was also about feeling othered. "Living in a patriarchy and having a lot of these things that feel natural and innate to you feeling as though they're evil or different." The film initially premiered at horror festivals around the world, where its bright, kitschy aesthetics must have stood out against the other offerings. But the horror in The Love Witch is not about blood and gore (though there is a high body count). It's about the horror of being a woman.
One of the genre's biggest clichés is a man exacting revenge on women who refuse to conform, the "slut" figure who always dies first. The director argues that men can feel relaxed by the spectacle of women getting killed because "it kind of sublimates the hidden rage they have that they're not even conscious of". The Love Witch might work similarly on female-identified viewers: "I think with female audiences, they don't even see the film as violent. It's the same thing; they're kind of relaxed. They see these jerks dying and it's kind of satisfying."
Witchcraft aside, The Love Witch feels like alchemy itself. An entire universe crafted from one female auteur's imagination. Biller not only wrote and directed the film, she also created the sets, costumes and even composed original songs. "Being an artist and creating things, it all feels like magic to me, so I think the film is also about that."
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