We live in an era of pastiche. In the lingering aftermath of the irony-drenched 1990s, young artists and patrons alike have mined the aesthetic of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s for camp value. As more and more modern films – particularly by young filmmakers – exploit these used aesthetics for laughs, it can be hard to tell where winking irreverence ends and sincerity begins. This is just part of what makes Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch so refreshing, for while it emulates (very successfully) the heightened anti-realism of 1960s era pop filmmaking, it does so in a way that is entirely, boldly sincere. And while the absurd situations within the film often provoke laughs, you are always laughing with the movie, never at it.
The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), introduced driving her convertible down a beachside California highway in a shot that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll struggle to tell whether it utilizes vintage Hitchcockian rear-projection. Indeed, for the first several minutes of the film, you may find yourself wondering if this is simply a modern restoration of a forgotten cult classic, so persuasive is its recreation of a look and filmmaking style you no longer see in theatres; this illusion will last until you see the first modern car or cell phone, Biller’s canny way of clueing you into the artificiality of what she’s showing you. Elaine is going west after her relationship with her boyfriend, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak), has gone south. The viewer is left unclear as to the exact details of how the relationship ended, but we’re clued into two things: Jerry is dead, and Elaine is very cagey about disclosing this fact. Elaine moves into an apartment rented out by Trish (Laura Waddell), a contented housewife puzzled by Elaine’s somewhat antiquated views on male-female relationships. Over time, Elaine’s strange influence will seduce and corrupt those around her, resulting in a body count that attracts the attention of the police, led by womanizing detective Griff (Gian Keys). When Griff and Elaine finally meet face to face, it kicks off a romance that takes them places neither of them expect.
Biller, who in addition to writing, directing and scoring the movie, served as its production and costume designer, has given us the most visually spectacular movie of 2016, sumptuous in every handcrafted detail. To watch The Love Witch is to inhabit it, and by the end such strikingly colorful sets as Elaine’s occult decorated apartment, an impossibly lavish tea room, and a Wicker Man-esque Renaissance faire go from feeling bizarrely outlandish to comfortingly familiar.
Biller’s control of the look and feel of the film is quite comprehensive, but two contributors in particular help to elevate it. One is cinematographer M. David Mullen, whose expert color timing and classically solid framing communicate the lavishness of Biller’s vision perfectly, in images that are crisp enough to be breathtaking but soft and grainy enough to put over the trick of convincing you that what you’re seeing surely couldn’t have been shot after 1970. The other collaborator, perhaps even more important, is Samantha Robinson, giving a stunner of a breakout performance. Biller’s entire cast is on point, but none more so than Robinson, giving a precisely controlled reading of a very tricky role; Elaine is our window into the strange world Biller is presenting and occupies a role that would typically be used as an audience figure. But as much as we learn about her and are allowed to see past the veneer she presents to the other characters, she never stops feeling a little bit alien. It is a testament to Robinson’s talent that she so perfectly nails the heightened presentational acting style of the film as a whole while making it seem so natural and ingrained in Elaine’s personality.
Beyond the film’s look and overwhelming sense of style, Biller taps into social issues in intensely probing ways. She’s not the first to use the image of the witch to call attention to patriarchal society’s persecution of women, but rarely has anyone done so in such a unique, ambiguous manner. Over the course of the film, Elaine goes from a predator seducing and destroying men in her quest for the perfect husband to a victim set upon by the leering drunken patrons of the burlesque bar she frequents. In the film’s closing moments, she is most pointedly shown to be a victim of herself, as the limits of her way of thinking and approaching romance finally become apparent to her.
With The Love Witch, Anna Biller has made a film that is both a loving tribute to the technicolor glory of a bygone age of cinema and a forward-thinking act of provocation. According to Biller, “one reason I was obsessed with old Hollywood is that they used to make a lot of ‘women’s pictures,’ which were not about men dominating their environments and women, but about social and psychological issues. I vowed from that time on to make a cinema about lived female experience that caters to women’s visual pleasure.” The visual pleasures of The Love Witch are many, as are its insights into gender relations, particularly its dissection of the male gaze vs. the female gaze, exploring how men see women as opposed to how women see themselves. At the same time, it’s also wickedly fun and wildly funny; the cinema of 2016 scarcely produced a bigger laugh than Elaine’s deadpan reaction as she looks on the results of one of her love potions. Biller’s grand achievement in The Love Witch is that she has made movie as alluring and inscrutable as its protagonist, one that promises to be endlessly rewarding on the repeat watches by its guaranteed cult fan base to come.