On love potions and the sexual politics of genre in Anna Biller's The Love Witch
The Love Witch Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director: Anna Biller
Screenplay: Anna Biller
Starring: Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Gian Keys, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Stephen Wozniak and Jared Sanford
Not rated / 2 hours / 1.85:1
(out of four)
The Love Witch is an anachronism full of anachronisms, an intoxicating mélange of eras, attitudes and colors swirled together into a stiff genre cocktail. Its notions are nestled in between its contradictions, deliberately played against each other as if thrown together by a sardonic god just to conjure a chemical reaction.
At first we only notice the pastiche - the gorgeous, Technicolor, rear-projected recreation of 1960s exploitation and Italian horror that auteur Anna Biller has painstakingly designed. The film doesn't - and can't - look like anything else around because of how knowingly and wholeheartedly it imitates its decades-old influences, inheriting and embracing the tawdry beauty of their aesthetics, the antiquity of their politics, the textures of their blood and sex, even their physical material of 35mm. In her complete stylistic command and aesthetic fluency, Biller shares a rare space with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, as well as the French duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears) and Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy). The Love Witch is not a mere replication (although it's so meticulous that it may seem like it at times) but very keenly, self-consciously a 21st Century product; it is the sum of the very contrast of its parts, the co-opting of specific mannerisms (of visual style, of fashion, of rhetoric) itself a statement. The movie can't read exclusively as pulp, or camp, or psychedelic fantasy, or satire, but as a hybrid of all of them and more, each mode subverting and augmenting the next. The inconsistency is more or less the point, right down to the characters' mid-20th Century fashions somehow coexisting with smartphones, the vintage automobiles that somehow feel right at home next to the present-day models.
What we call "style" is often - too often - falsely interpreted as a sort of veneer placed on top of a story, rather than as the film's very language. In any event, appearances can be deceiving, a fact that Biller toys with throughout The Love Witch. Her deceptively docile heroine, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), has the carefully manufactured look of a classical sex kitten ... and a trail of dead (male) bodies in her wake, all of whom failed to live up to her standards of lasting romance. There's a whole host of diabolical contrasts within Elaine, particularly exemplified by her own running voiceover commentary - the angelic naivete of her voice, in particular the mystified air during any explanation/interpretation of her own actions - which is utterly convincing in its own right, so that we very nearly believe that her drugging and subsequent murdering of the men in her life is really just a series of unfortunate misunderstandings.
Robinson's performance is electric - her narration as important a part of it as any of her moments on screen - and a perfect embodiment of the filmmaker's fully-formed, tongue-in-cheek vision. Biller is a multihyphenate of remarkable versatility, not only writing and directing the picture but also serving as editor, composer, producer, production designer, art director, costume designer, set designer and set decorator. Pathetically, she couldn't manage to also handle the cinematography, so she brought on the wonderful M. David Mullen (Northfork, Twin Falls Idaho) to capture her candy-colored, neo-suburban fantasia in all its pristine celluloid majesty. Central to the visual approach is the matter-of-factness that runs through all areas of the film. This is a world in which the presence of witches is just casually accepted. On a city street there's, say, a pharmacy, a general store, a locksmith, a tattoo parlor, and casually alongside them a shop for witches to buy their ingredients, talismans, potion books, and the like.
The locations, each one seemingly from a different universe, all seem to coexist without comment. Elaine's apartment, which comes witch-ready, pre-adorned with chintzy paintings that look like blown-up tarot cards. The tea room where Elaine spends time with her friend Trish (Laura Waddell), dominated by pink and other pastels, and in which the women wear flowered hats and dresses and wax dreamlike about providing their husbands (or prospective husbands) with everything their hearts desire. The police station where we meet Griff (Gian Keys) - his square-jawed brand of fairy-tale masculinity that straight-up borders on sarcastic, if not suspicious; the man in uniform Elaine never knew she wanted, or needed - and which seems ripped out of every cop movie and TV show from the early 1970s. And finally the most blatant anachronism of all, the renaissance faire where Elaine and Griff find themselves on a romantic afternoon in the country, its masquerade of old-fashioned courtships and gender roles made all the more amusing by its juxtaposition with the already-antiquated "modern" versions peppering the rest of the film.
Those settings are just one tool in a large arsenal Biller uses as she pokes fun at, among other things, the way women (and men, for that matter) are treated as monolithic. When Elaine is asked, at one point, what men want, her answer - and the simple fact of a strong woman declaring it - is as patently absurd as it is earnestly believed. Her method to snag a husband is an elaborate seduction typically involving a love potion of her own concoction, which always proves too powerful. Her charms work only too well. (One target of hers, after their first night together, wails and wails in anguish every moment he's not in her presence. A complete turn-off, as he discovers.)
The film's playful effect is all a product of the way Biller arranges her competing signals and ideals, her conflicting temporal details and genre customs. There's certainly a pacing issue that lingers throughout; it's such a precise, committed reflection of its specific genre influences that it rarely changes its tone or goes anywhere it didn't already go in the first few minutes. So, especially by the two-hour mark, it all seems like far too much of the same thing. Still, too much of a good thing is still, by definition, a good thing. The Love Witch is a jazzy riff about attraction and repulsion, about sexual and gendered expectations, about how they're all couched in, and governed by, the framework (time, era, region, or in this case all of those things as seen through the prism of genre) in which they exist. Equally sincere and caustic, Biller's film is one of a kind in modern cinema.