Written, produced, and directed by Anna Biller, The Love Witch (trailer) is the story of a seductive, profoundly damaged woman and the men whose attention she commands. It’s a comedy of the absurd, a tragedy of the patriarchy, and a beautifully shot thriller. I saw it with my wife in the theater at the end of last year, and walking out afterward it was clear that we had a witnessed the birth of a cult classic.
As the film opens, our titular protagonist Elaine (Samantha Robinson) flees the big city to a small town in the mountains of California. Her presence is felt immediately, disrupting all she meets with her single-minded philosophy of love (and “love magic” derived from Pagan and Wiccan roots), a notion of gendered duality in which the female must engage with the male in an overpowering display of eros that renders him open to her advances by granting him his fantastic ideal.
Almost immediately we’re given to question this definition, formed as it is in a haze of drugs and mysticism, and put into practice from Elaine’s distorted viewpoint. We watch the ritualized weaponization of her femininity cast against patriarchally enshrined gender roles to the point that they crumble, overpowering the men for whom this is the supposed realization of ultimate sexual fulfillment.
In their downfall we see a caricature of our own misplaced desires, as what Elaine offers as the pinnacle of lust is revealed in its perversion as ludicrous and banal, though never anything other than aesthetically exquisite.
The film moves at a languid pace, lingering between lines of dialogue to let the visuals sink in. We are given plenty of time for interpretation, which is practically demanded by the effort taken in arranging the scenery and the tropes of each genre the film flirts with. Pagan mysticism, dollhouse Victoriana, Ren Faire camp, and artifacts of 70’s pop culture are all the more pronounced by the occasional deliberate anachronism of a cell phone or a modern car.
Ultimately The Love Witch seems preoccupied with this glamorous display, leaving us with more questions than answers regarding the morality and motivations of its characters. This is a strength, however, as the succession of vivid, saturated images of pleasure leave us feeling titillated and amused, but not quite right. Its pastiche of genre conventions succeeds in creating something entirely new, while the story it tells is undeniably unsettling.
The Bottom Line:
The Love Witch is campy, bizarre, and drop-dead gorgeous. Watch it once as a triumph of anachronistic craftsmanship, and again for the subtext; make no mistake that Anna Biller is an auteur, and there’s a lot to see below the surface.
(If you can, try to see it on film. The digital stills and trailer capture most of the feel, but the grain, scratches, and tracking artifacts on film coupled with the deliberate mid-20th century aesthetic make it an irreplaceable experience.)