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 Witch, The 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.
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.