By Jessica Baxter.
You could never accuse writer/director Anna Biller of masking her influences. She has, to date, painstakingly created two films that would fit seamlessly within the sexploitation genre of the 60s and 70s. She follows up her sexual revolution comedy debut, Viva (2007), with The Love Witch, a film that flirts with horror, but still boasts plenty of ‘ploitation of the sexual ilk. The only clues that The Love Witch wasn’t made 60 years ago are the modern cars parked along the street. However, Biller prominently features her protagonists’ vintage automobiles, as well as ensures that every other possible detail is as period accurate as an episode of Mad Men. Trouble is, movies like this have fallen out of favor for a reason. Sure they look great – every frame and outfit makes me long to hit the flea market. But the story is also period accurate in that it peddles a brand of faux-feminism better left in the past. The protagonist is a badass because she isn’t afraid to kill to get what she wants. But what she wants is nothing more than the attention of a man – seemingly any man. You can dismiss these themes in movies from that era because they were playing within the status quo. But we’re better than that now. Maybe not a lot better, but let’s not take two steps back just to be true to the era. I prefer my throwbacks with a dash of modern ideology.
Don’t get me wrong. Biller is unequivocally talented. She is a true auteur, deserving of awards in at least half the Oscar categories. In addition to writing and directing, she also serves as producer, editor, costume and set design, hair and makeup, and even some of the score (the rest is Ennio Morricone and other vintage Italian ditties). Not many people can do one of those things well, let along all of them at once. Which is why I wanted more from The Love Witch. Elaine, the titular witch, operates under a very black-and-white gender philosophy. In her experience, all men are the same – they want women to be their simultaneous mother and whore. Elaine believes that the only way to even the playing field is to cater to their desires. “Only then will he be able to see you as a human being,” she says. And then, “when his heart is open to love, you may do with him what you will”. For her, sex is a means to an end. But what is her intended end? I’m not sure Elaine even knows. She’s chasing a fairy tale, illustrated by a medieval painting she works on throughout the film. Even in her fantasy, in order for her to win her beloved’s heart, she must literally rip it from his body.
Biller’s casting is yet another thing that’s entirely on point. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) absolutely looks the part of a 60s femme fatale, with her hair extensions, high cheekbones, and turquoise eye shadow. We first meet Elaine driving a cherry red Mustang convertible along California’s coastal green screen, on her way to a new life. It seems “tragedy” befell her ex-husband, forcing her to flee San Francisco and take refuge with a Northern California chapter of her coven.
After taking high tea with Trish (Laura Waddell), her friendly new landlady, Elaine wastes no time getting down to brass tacks in her new town. She targets Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a hapless college professor, abruptly enchanting him away from a conversation with another woman. Soon they’re en route to his woodsy vacation home to eat, drink, and make whoopee. Elaine didn’t need a love potion to ensnare Wayne, but she doses him at dinner anyway, causing him to trip balls and then fall to pieces after a night of passion. Elaine seems only mildly disappointed when the intensity of the spell causes Wayne’s heart to give out. Before she flees the scene, she curiously constructs a DNA care package for the police, leaving a jar of her urine with a spent tampon garnish on top of Wayne’s shallow grave.
We learn Elaine’s back-story through voiceover in conjunction with flashbacks. She was a frumpy housewife, the victim of infidelity. She joined a coven, got a witchy makeover, and poisoned her ex-husband either before or after being violated on an altar in the name of “perfect love and perfect trust”, whilst surrounded by an audience of witches. Perhaps Elaine’s first mistake was choosing a co-ed coven headed by a warlock. It’s much less freedom through witchcraft and more transference of sexual submission to a demonic patriarchy. After Wayne fails to meet her expectations, she quickly moves on to the next man. But there’s a fatal flaw in her methods and the bodies begin to pile up.
To be fair, neither gender comes off well in The Love Witch. Elaine ends up screwing over the only true feminist in the film. Trish shows Elaine nothing but kindness and friendship. In return, Elaine destroys her life, practically on a whim. If Elaine truly wants to “control” men, maybe she shouldn’t turn against her own gender so readily. When women show solidarity, men have less control over us. We divide and get conquered. I used to think, “that’s just how some women are”, but you know what? Fuck that. None of my ladies would ever behave that way. Trish wisely informs Elaine that she “sound[s] as if [she’s] been brainwashed by the patriarchy”. Trish is more right than she knows. If there’s a subversive feminist message in The Love Witch, I’m sorry to say that I missed it. But gosh, it sure is nice to look at.
For over a decade, Jessica Baxter has provided her solicited opinion on films for the likes of Film Threat, ReelTime Blog, and Hammer to Nail. She is thrilled to continue her work with Film International, where she also serves as Television Editor and Image Editor for the journal. She also wrote and directed the award-winning short films, Snow Day, Bloody Snow Day (2005) and Love & 145 Watts (2004) and worked on two critically acclaimed music documentaries for King of Hearts Productions – Tad: Busted Circuits & Ringing Ears (2008) and Mudhoney: I’m Now (2012). She resides in Seattle, Washington, USA.