On the surface, director Anna Biller’s sophomore feature, The Love Witch, might look like a grab-bag of filmmaking tropes from the 1960’s and 70’s, a contemporary film designed to play on audience nostalgia for cinematic eras gone by (a recurring theme at theaters this winter; see: La La Land). Yet behind the eye-catching homage to Technicolor cinematography, the retro-glamorous hair and makeup, and the stylized performances of the pitch-perfect cast is a sharp-eyed satire of how society views female sexuality as simultaneously desirable and dangerous.
We first meet Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) as she drives along a quintessentially Hitchcockian rear projection of the Northern California coast in her cherry-red convertible. She devours cigarette after cigarette, continuously stubbing them out in her car’s ashtray; her long dark hair is made even longer by a shiny synthetic wig, and her eye makeup is heavy and hypnotic. She’s the ultimate honey trap, with everything about her look and attitude designed to project maximum glamour and sensuality. Through voice-over, Elaine informs us that she’s leaving her old life in San Francisco behind after the death of her ex-husband, Jerry, to move to the small town of Eureka and start anew. After Jerry left her, Elaine sought solace in the arms of a coven of witches, and is now a master (better, mistress) of love and sex spells. Obsessed with obtaining the love that Jerry always held at arm’s length, Elaine is determined to do whatever it takes to make a man fall for her, and when not actively pursuing love herself, she constantly urges her friend Trish (Laura Waddell) to do whatever she can to make her own husband happy — even at the expense of her own wants and desires. Elaine strives to embody all of men’s fantasies about the ideal woman — she cooks delicious meals, performs spontaneous stripteases in sexy lingerie, and coos words of comfort every time one of them starts feeling insecure (which is often). She both literally and figuratively casts a spell over nearly every man that crosses her path. Yet Elaine’s spells start to seem more like curses when the men she targets start meeting rather unpleasant ends.
Elaine’s coven, led by the creepy Gahan (Jared Sanford) and his partner, Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), spends a substantial amount of time camped out in a burlesque club; dancing is how Elaine first met Barbara and was introduced to the world of witchcraft. Gahan and Barbara teach new recruits how to use dance to manipulate the male gaze, and how to embrace their sexuality as a source of power just as potent as magic. During one scene, set against the backdrop of a burlesque performance, Gahan and Barbara lecture two girls on how the history of witchcraft has been eternally tied to women’s sexuality. Women are supposed to be sensual and available, but never too aggressively — never too much. Then, men feel threatened by them, afraid that they’ll lose control of themselves (and naturally, this lack of self-control is always the woman’s fault, never the man’s). The Love Witch explores these conflicting feelings and then some, examining the ways men view women — not to mention, the ways other women view women, too. Biller fills her film with close-ups of her casts’ eyes and mouths, lingering over their heavy false eyelashes, glossy lips, and frequently imperfect teeth as though daring you to succumb to them.
Biller, a multitalented artist who also wrote, produced, edited, scored and designed the costumes and sets of The Love Witch, is clearly a dedicated scholar of the pulp fiction and thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s. The film, despite taking place in the modern day, thoroughly sticks to its retro conceit, right down to being one of the last films to cut an original camera negative on 35 millimeter film. The campy tone and stylized performances are so spot-on in regards to mid-century, low-budget horror that I kept expecting icon of the era Udo Kier to pop up at any moment. It is lovingly made down to the last detail, from the frilly and frothy Victorian tea room that the women of Eureka frequent to the jewel-toned paintings of pentagrams that decorate Elaine’s apartment. So many modern films are shot to be dark and dour; The Love Witch, by pleasant contrast, dazzles with its delightful use of color and light.
The Love Witch is lovely to look at, but like Elaine herself, it’s so much more than just a pretty face. (Speaking of Elaine: Samantha Robinson’s performance is an absolute stunner; her shy, breathy voice and fluttering eyelashes create a picture-perfect facade of feminine fragility that barely masks the seething anger and disappointment within.) It’s laugh-out-loud funny, cartoonishly violent, and so, so smart. It might look and feel like a film from the past, but at its heart, it is a remarkable look at the way our modern world views and values women — a serious statement about sexual politics wrapped up in a cocoon of cats-eye liner and cake, making it all the more dangerously potent.
Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. She previously reviewed new DVD and theatrical releases as a staff writer for Just Press Play and currently reviews television shows as a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on Medium for more film reviews and on Twitter for an excessive amount of opinions on German soccer.