Written and Directed by: Anna Biller
Starring: Samantha Robinson, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, and Laura Waddell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way."
On its face, The Love Witch is almost confrontational in its choice of familiar aesthetics. Everything about it—from its one-sheets to every single promotional still—whisks you back to the heyday of garish melodramas, essentially forcing you to consider it as an objet d’art, or an exercise in pure aesthetic recreation. To do so, however, is to severely underestimate what writer/director Anna Biller is up to here. Merely dismissing The Love Witch as an homage is a nice, easy way to classify it, to look at it and regard it as a collection of affectation. However, this is no homage, as crafting such a tribute implies a certain approval or complicity that Biller is not willing to extend towards the films she’s subverting.
Far from a doting love letter, The Love Witch is instead a Technicolor enchantment aimed straight at the heart of the patriarchy. In the space of about two hours, Biller looks to undercut decades of male gaze nonsense, essentially wondering aloud what it might look like if most of those vintage melodramas considered its female characters as more than mere objects—and then she further wonders how it might look if one of those films were also a horror film. For all its familiar aesthetics, The Love Witch is nothing if not a daring, adventurous film that winds up being quite unlike just about anything that inspired it.
Despite the retro vibes, The Love Witch is set in modern day Arcata, California, where Elaine Parks has moved in the hopes of starting a new life following her husband’s shocking death. It seems especially tragic for Elaine, who appears to be a model housewife transplanted straight out of 1950s sitcom Americana: she makes fawning, doe-eyed displays towards every man she meets, from loose acquaintances to police officers. Moreover, she even insists to her friends that she—and all women—should live in the service of pleasuring and loving their men. Some of her more woke associates are appalled and wonder if she hasn’t been brainwashed by the patriarchy, but there’s something devious lurking beneath this alluring surface: Elaine is a real deal witch with the ability to hex would-be lovers with both her natural sexiness and a homemade love potion.
As such, The Love Witch unravels in mostly episodic fashion, with Elaine luring one unsuspecting man after another into her snares. The film takes on a loose, jangly energy that’s appreciably shaggy: what the film lacks in a tightly wound narrative, it makes up for the sort of lived-in quality of a hangout movie. You don’t watch The Love Witch so much as you luxuriate in its strange but alluring rhythms, not unlike Jess Franco’s early forays into horror. Not to presume that Franco is an influence, but something about the cadence here instantly transported me back to films like Vampyros Lesbos and She Killed in Ecstasy, a couple of similarly loosely-plotted films that nonetheless thrive on the indelible exploits of femme fatales. Biller’s fealty down to the level of pacing and shot selection here is an admirable throwback to a style of film that’s difficult to recapture sincerely.
And not to give the impression that The Love Witch is an empty exercise in pure visual mimicry, but goddamn is it a gorgeous movie to simply behold. Every frame reveals a meticulously crafted scene, from the costume designs to the surrounding sets, all of which have been coordinated to pop off of the screen. In addition to writing, directing, and editing the film, Biller also designed all of these elements, and the result is nothing short of stunning. Forget considering it as a pitch-perfect Technicolor replication: it’s a genuine marvel in its own right, bursting at the seams with dazzling primary colors and garish designs. Even moments when The Love Witch starts to feel a tad too long—a faux wedding sequence being one instance—you hardly mind because it’s such a delight to watch this rich world sprawl out onto the frame.
But what’s more, Biller isn’t content to simply craft an empty tribute to the films guiding The Love Witch’s aesthetic. Where most films of this ilk take a heightened (if not campy) route via cheeky replication, this one is engaged with its familiar aesthetics on a thematic level. For all the world, The Love Witch could pass as either a Sirk-style melodrama or a vintage Eurohorror film (scenes featuring pagan rituals and lots of bare flesh on display tend to do that), at least until the characters begin interacting. An unabashed feminist streak splashes right down the middle of The Love Witch, effectively undercutting the typical gender dynamics of these films. You can’t miss it, not when Biller’s thesis is repeatedly underlined through multiple conversations between characters who speak about the historical repression of the female sex within the suffocating patriarchy. Biller’s only notable misstep comes in the obviousness of these moments—they’re just a little too clumsy and heavy-handed, though it could be argued it’s very much in the exploitation tradition (after all, Cannibal Holocaust features a scene where characters wonder aloud who the real savages are).
More effective are the scenes that simply let Elaine do her thing by preying on her victims. It’s not that Elaine simply lures men to their deaths—it’s the manner in which she reduces them to ridiculous puddles of desperate, clingy emotions. An obvious inversion of the histrionic station typically reserved for women in melodramas, these scenes are wry, pointed barbs that are more effective than Biller’s purely dialogue-driven criticisms. They’re hilarious not because they’re parodies or gags, but because they’re straight-faced, on point reversals of the status quo. Of all the memorable images and scenes in The Love Witch, I keep coming back to the sight of Jeffrey Vincent Parise—ostensibly playing a rugged leading man type—writhing away in bed, tearfully pleading for Elaine to return his affection.
Of course, her response is just as memorable: once his passions literally consume him, Elaine stages an impromptu funeral, where he’s buried beneath a mound of dirt in his backyard, with Elaine’s witch bottle—filled with a bloody tampon and her own urine—serving as his tombstone. Obviously, Elaine is quite a character, and Robinson is terrific in the role. Like Soledad Miranda and Lina Romay before her, she’s more than capable of shouldering the film on the power of her sheer magnetism. Only a few scenes unfold without her on screen, and her presence is constantly felt regardless. Robinson similarly refuses to engage in a blank pastiche: her Elaine is not simply a remix of previous femme fatales and hysterical women but rather a fully fleshed-out (pun intended, given all the skin on display) character bearing her own desires and anxieties. While she’s supremely confident in wielding her sex like a weapon, she’s also fraught with insecurities, and Robinson hints at just the right amount of vulnerability lurking beneath Elaine’s calculating, Stepford-esque surface.
It’s this vulnerability—and the doozy of an ending that arises out of it—that further pushes The Love Witch to a rare space that more emptyheaded tributes can never reach. Imagining a more obvious, triumphant ending to this type of genre subversion is easy enough, but I love that Biller resists even this. Even in a film where feminism is poised to rewrite—or at least rewire—genre conventions, it’s still unable to completely flourish. There’s something unsettlingly ambiguous about the ending that feels right—for a film that’s otherwise so confident, there’s a hesitation to its elliptical ending, which seemingly damns the very protagonist it’s reveled in for two hours. In this respect, the didactic nature of the overdone feminist musings are set up only to be slightly undercut, as the ending prompts more questions than answers about what Elaine actually represents.
Being left with an ending to mull and chew over is the last of Biller’s many spells. Much like Elaine herself, The Love Witch is a meticulous piece of work where everything is decorated and put-upon just so, yet has moments of vulnerability that allow the audience to unravel it a bit. Every moment of The Love Witch is somehow thriving upon and resisting its aesthetics all at once: it both is and isn’t another entry into its various canons. If anything, it’s perhaps best to consider it a response since it certainly isn’t homage, much less the tactless blank parody often found in the post-Grindhouse world.
Whatever you decide it is, The Love Witch is certainly unlike anything that’s been released in recent memory: honestly, I could not have been more in the tank for it based on its promotional material, but I was delighted to discover that it’s even more rich and clever than its posturing lets on. This is the real deal, a film that’s enraptured by cinema but not so enamored that it’s blinded by its own adoration—it’s a 35mm incantation that looks beyond the scratches and cigarette burns to find the pulsing heart of cinema and forge something wholly unique out of it.
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