If The Love Witch simply raised the profile of its director, Anna Biller—a true auteur who not only wrote, directed, produced, and edited this film but also designed and hand made its sets and costumes—then it would be a success. Biller’s devout attention to detail in her films means we don’t get a lot of them, and it’s been nearly a decade since her last one, the sexploitation satire Viva. Happily, though, Biller’s tribute to the ’60s and ’70s witchcraft melodrama (see: George Romero’s Season Of The Witch) is not just an impressive visual and technical achievement. It’s also a nuanced statement on gender relations whose morals are as flexible as its formal qualities are rigid.
Samantha Robinson—who bears a striking resemblance to the title character in one of Biller’s presumed stylistic touchstones for this film, Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971)—stars as Elaine, an enigmatic widow who moves from San Francisco to a small California coastal town after the death of her husband. On the surface, Elaine’s worldview appears pathetically retrograde; she’s obsessed with finding true love through witchcraft and believes that a woman should devote herself to fulfilling her man’s every desire. But there’s a subversive edge to this philosophy, and not just because Elaine kills her lovers if they disappoint her (and they always do). Elaine views men as dumb, easily manipulated creatures, susceptible to the simplest of tricks and most clichéd lines. And when she gently strokes one man’s hair, cooing, “Life has been tough, huh?” as he cries about how he can’t find a woman who’s both smart and pretty, the stony look on Robinson’s face exposes the hatred that underlies her passion.
But while it’s tempting to read this film—or at least the first half, before she meets her match in the form of comically square-jawed detective Griff (Gian Keys)—as the feminist revenge fantasy some of us desperately need right now, the narrative is more complicated than that. Even the goddess-worshipping Wiccan group that introduced Elaine to witchcraft has its patriarchal tendencies, and it’s implied that her initiation into the cult of sex magic was not entirely consensual. Plus, her relationship with Trish (Laura Waddell), a local woman whose husband Elaine seduces then tosses aside like a bored child the day after Christmas, reveals Elaine to be just as arrogant and insincere toward other women as she is toward men. At its core, The Love Witch cautions against the dangers of self-delusion, allowing the viewer to place responsibility for our anti-heroine’s narcissism where they like. Is she evil, or did the men in her life make her that way?
Shot (and projected, wherever possible) on lush 35mm, The Love Witch appears to be set in the early ’70s, except for a few little details—and one big detail toward the end—that slyly challenge that assumption. Whatever the era, its small-town setting is a gaudy wonderland of mid-century kitsch: Instead of Starbucks, the characters gossip at a tea house where ladies in Victorian gowns and giant flowered hats nibble on cakes as harpists play in the background, and the local watering hole doubles as an old-fashioned bump ’n’ grind burlesque house. Elaine’s apartment in a grand, old Victorian house is similarly tacky, its brightly colored walls adorned with crude paintings of unicorns and pagan rituals. Along with the heightened psychedelia of the visual effects—the potion Elaine brews for her victims produces a colorful prism effect straight out of 1967’s The Trip—and musical nods to giallo, the overall effect is one of cheeky feminist camp, delighting in the artifice of both femininity and filmmaking. (There’s a horse named “Patchouli,” for goodness’ sake.)
With such an over-the-top aesthetic, and with one person handling so many of the artistic duties, The Love Witch does occasionally tip over into self-indulgence, particularly in a Renaissance fair scene that goes on longer than it needs to. But you don’t see movies like The Love Witch much anymore, and even in the heyday of occult pulp, they were rarely made with such care. By harkening back to a bygone era of filmmaking, The Love Witch scoops up the zeitgeist in its long, slender fingers, gently turning it over before driving a nail through its chest.