Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: The Love Witch

by Patrick Bromley
Such a #NastyWoman.

On the basis of her first two movies, 2007's Viva and now The Love Witch, I can't think of many current filmmakers I'm more excited about than Anna Biller. Not only did she write and direct The Love Witch, one of the year's best movies, but also produced it, edited it, wrote the score, did the production design, set design, art direction and costume design. This movie is such the product of a specific vision, so perfectly realized, that it bums me out to know that we have to wait years between films as she researches and does the insane amount of work necessary to bring her ideas to the screen. It means fewer Anna Biller movies.
Shot on 35mm in eye-popping color meant to replicate the gorgeous Technicolor Eurohorror films released in the late '60s and '70s, The Love With tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a modern-day witch who sells soaps and candles and who also casts spells on men -- both figuratively and literally -- in her search for perfect love. Her magic has negative effects, though, and Elaine leaves a trail of bodies in her wake.

A few weeks ago on our podcast, I was talking about a recent horror film called Francesca, directed by Luciano Onetti. It perfectly reproduces the look and feel of a '70s giallo, and while it was a movie I enjoyed I found myself questioning the "why" of it all. Sure, it looks like the thing and it feels like the thing, but to what end? It would be easy to look at The Love Witch and dismiss it as another movie that successfully replicates the stylization of a bygone genre, but to do so would be to miss just how much this film has going on under its impossibly gorgeous surface. By using the stylization of an early '70s film, Biller instantly invokes the gender politics of the era (era) -- the same politics once explored each week on, say, Mad Men. American history being what it is, movies about witches are rarely just about wtiches; like a number of witch movies made pre-1980, whether it be Burn, Witch, Burn! or George A. Romero's Season of the WitchThe Love Witch is about a male society which seeks to control and dominate women, limiting their choices and putting them in prescribed boxes and then lashing out at them when they try to escape those boxes.
Even some of the early writing I've read about the film wants to put Elaine in a box. Is she a lovesick delusional taken to manipulating men to get them to fall for her? Is she a vengeful monster who wants to get back at all men as punishment for those who have wronged her? Does she actually enjoy sex, or is she merely wielding her sexuality as a weapon? A number of the pieces I've read want to answer these questions, pinning the character down -- and, as a side effect, Biller's intentions in writing her -- to just one or the other. But what The Love Witch presents is the radical new idea that women can be all of these things simultaneously. Crazy, right? Men are allowed to be complicated for decades on film, but a movie comes along that presents a major female character who's multi-faceted and it spins the critical community's heads around.

There's a scene inside a burlesque club in which Elaine sits around a table with a few other witches and explicitly lays out several of the movie's themes: a woman's sexuality is not Satanic or anti-feminist, one character says. Another points out that "The whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of female sexuality. They burned us at the stake because they feared the erotic feelings we elicited in them." This entire conversation is intercut with footage of businessmen drinking at the foot of a stage as a beautiful female dancer disrobes piece by piece. What she's doing, Biller argues, is not wrong or anti-feminist, yet society condemns her -- the modern term would be "slut shames," I suppose -- because there is some Puritanical idea that appreciating or respecting female sexuality (particularly that sexuality which is defined and expressed by the woman herself rather than exploited by men) is dirty and wrong. Several times throughout the movie, Elaine is attacked by other characters for her actions. They fear her. They lust after her. The results are the same: she is attacked. Through it all, Elaine remains cool, unflappable. The only time she really reacts in horror is when she is called out on her shit by another woman. This is not a coincidence.
What Samantha Robinson does in the title role is nothing short of miraculous. She reproduces a very specific acting style perfectly without sneaking in any condescending commentary -- there's no "look how stiff and bad this is!" winking to the camera. She commits to the role a hundred percent, and in doing so imbues Elaine with the same total sense of sincerity that Robinson projects. It's the kind of role of which movie stars are made, both because Robinson looks so glamorous in every single frame, perfectly styled and lovingly photographed by M. David Mullen's camera, but also because she creates such a rich character while managing to deliver a performance that some might consider a stunt. The other actors in the film give stylized performances as well. Laura Waddell, playing Elaine's closest friend, is right out of a Hammer movie, while the work from Jared Sanford (reuniting with Biller after starring in Viva) is reminiscent of a '70s acid movie that would have played the drive-in for years.
I'm completely in love with The Love Witch. Of course I'm going to partial to it because I'm a fan of the kinds of movies to which it's paying tribute, but it's also so richly detailed and insanely beautiful to look at that it's the kind of movie I want to live in for two hours. The fact that it's such a labor of love and that Biller built the film from the bottom up only makes me love it more -- it's the work of a totally realized, totally original, true artist. It is both endlessly entertaining and boldly political, a movie with a lot to say that finds the most visually arresting way to say it. I don't want Anna Biller to ever compromise her work ethic or her all-in approach to movie making, but it also kills me to think I'll have to wait years to see her follow up The Love Witch. This isn't just one of the most exciting movies of the year, but also one of the best.


  1. I saw a poster for this at Alamo and thought it was a joke at first. Unfortunately, they're the only ones showing it in this area and they're on my shit list right now (see my comment on Adam's post). I'll definitely check it out when I can.

  2. Saw a fabulous preview for this before Moonlight. Can't wait for it to start showing here.

    1. Was Moonlight as good as everyone's been saying?

    2. It was beautiful and heartbreaking, yeah. I didn't cry as much as my friend, though.

  3. Thanks for the review! I intend on finding this one. Girls just wanna have fun!

  4. Finally saw this. I very much enjoyed it! Like you said, Samantha Robinson was wonderful. And super adorable. She had a lot of layers to show and I just liked her performance more and more. I liked the part when she talks about her cat :) Not that I'm a cat person but that was a good part.

    What you wrote about women shouldn't have to be put in boxes I agree with on one level because I feel it shouldn't matter how men and society view women as much as it matters how women view themselves- we should AT LEAST have that freedom, and no one truly fits in boxes anyway whether they'd like to or not. But I also think the boxes and identifying and understanding them is important, and I think it's becoming MORE important. I never wanted to define feminism or thought of myself as political, and I was satisfied with it being an all-inclusive term. But suddenly you have a lot of women like Ivanka Trump calling themselves feminist and "championing women's rights". When that stuff happened last year I had a lot of "HELL NO" moments and felt like I realized I'd been naive not to associate feminism with a value system. I wrote above "girls just wanna have fun", and I mean I believe that but now I'm more interested in knowing if it's fun at other people's expense. Because in my heart, that doesn't have a place in "Feminism". To me feminism doesn't just stand for women and girls and whatever they do anymore, it stands for a value system. It's becoming meaningless otherwise! I mean if people like Ivanka Trump stand for feminism, I do not. Getting clear on those boxes and knowing who and what we are is SO important right now.

    And kind of back to the movie...I think there are so many bogus models of female empowerment that focus on the liberation of women's sexuality. I mean I'm sure some are legit, but you have to be careful the vision of "liberation" is not just another male vision. I think sexuality may be a difficult entry point to finding the roots of feminism because it's SO entrapped in patriarchal systems. Actually I thought the witch coven in the movie kind of represented one such bogus model. The guy at the top creeped her out and it was a tool she used to try to get something for herself but it never worked out in a fulfilling way. Actually the ending is making a lot more sense to me now...

    I love rich symbolism. The symbolism was almost out of control in this movie but I really admire the director for going there. I like it the more I think about it, too!