Elaine is a gorgeous witch who has been abandoned by her husband. She tells us that she is looking for new love: she wants a manly man, someone who will be fascinated by her womanly charms (witchy puns intended) but remain the strong, silent type, pay no attention to her needs, and generally treat her as a trophy. A specific and peculiar desire, perhaps, but attainable. This may not sound like the premise for a thought-provoking film about feminism, but Anna Biller’s latest movie, The Love Witch, is just that: and it’s odd, shocking and beautiful to boot.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) goes out looking for love: seducing a man she meets in the park, ensnaring her neighbour’s husband. But even when she finds what she wants and is appropriately adored, lusted after, and treated as an object, her love affairs tend to end fatally. It quickly becomes clear that “love” is not what she really wants – she seems more interested in power, or exploitation, or revenge. As we follow her on her quest, things get bloody.
But of course, Elaine is not a realistic character, and The Love Witch isn’t about real men and women. Instead, it’s about the pursuit of fantasy, especially unreasonable fantasies of the perfect man or woman. And it’s also heavily influenced by its director’s interest in the pleasures afforded by genre films: the Hammer horror, the 50s romantic comedy, the hey-nonny-nonny musical, the film noir.
By slowing down the action, quoting from lots of classic movies, and making her actors ham up their roles, Biller pushes us beyond the simple story of a lovelorn witch. The audience is encouraged to laugh at the plot and its stereotypes. What we end up with is a sophisticated reflection on the way old films offer us gendered pleasures, especially those involving the square-jawed cop and the soft-focus pussycat.
Even the critical vocabulary The Love Witch conjures up (as you can see) reeks of the mid-20th century, when men were men and women were women, or pretended to be. At times, you expect Cary Grant or Grace Kelly to walk into the frame, smoking without guilt or ash, grimly flirtatious, a walking stereotype of the debonair playboy or the femme fatale. Why, viewers might ask themselves, do we still enjoy these films? What do we get out of looking at these actually quite harmfully unreal heroes and heroines?
This makes The Love Witch sound like a joyless argument for censoring cinema. But in fact it’s the reverse. By all means, it suggests, let’s enjoy the ludicrous gender politics of mid-century Hollywood, so long as we know it’s ludicrous. Let’s play at being Doris Day or Victor Mature or Rock Hudson – after all, they were “playing” themselves in every sense of the word. Let’s pretend we’re fairytale princesses, and knights on white chargers. And, of course, witches.
The film goes all out to help us enjoy playing with these ideas. Its colours and textures are delicious, filled with scarlet lipsticks, creamy cakes, pastel veils and blushing roses. Samantha Robinson, as Elaine, goes from one breath-taking outfit to another, moving between 1955 and 1975 with equally gorgeous results. And the sets that surround her are crammed with design classics: cars, lamps, hats, bags, chairs, rugs that you immediately want to buy on eBay.
But there’s also the odd jam jar of urine, and splash of menstrual blood. Although it is broadly a romp, the film tips delicately from romantic comedy to exploitation horror, quoting every witchcraft film and TV show you could name: The Wicker Man, Charmed, Bewitched, Practical Magic, To the Devil a Daughter, Suspiria, Season of the Witch as well as a host of others.
Interest in witchcraft is at an all-time high in popular culture, with Harry Potter on the one hand and American Horror Story: Coven on the other: one a satisfying empowerment fantasy for children and teenagers, the other an adult festival of sex and violence dramatising female power and the strengths and limitations of sisterhood. The Love Witch is closer to the latter.
But because it’s not tied to a week-by-week suspenseful plot or ratings data, The Love Witch can wander off in absurdist or Brechtian directions whenever Biller wants it to. Bertolt Brecht’s drama aimed to show audiences the political facts behind personal stories, drawing attention to capitalist exploitation by breaking down the audience’s ability to invest in the characters he put in front of them. When characters started singing or directly addressing the audience with political statements, viewers couldn’t hide behind enjoyment of the plot or speculation about their fictional motives, but had to confront bigger economic truths.
The Love Witch works in a similar way at times, although its focus is gender, not economics. The result is that viewers who don’t know what to expect might sometimes be taken aback by sections where the acting is deliberately wooden or the plot is put on hold for a sing-song or a lecture on feminism. But if you know something about mid-20th century theatre, you should be greatly entertained.
There are also reflections on witchcraft as a pagan religion in the film, which will interest contemporary witches, and perhaps enrage some modern pagans. Scenes set in a Wiccan coven suggest that far from liberating women, witchcraft as it was imagined in the 1960s and 1970s simply replicated patriarchal exploitation. Elaine strips and submits to sex with the cult leader in a way that looks more like abuse than empowerment. Her witch friends are creepy pseudo-feminists, and she herself a “bad witch”, trailing madness and death in her wake. This depiction is more about paganism in film than in reality.
The Love Witch is a sophisticated collage of filmic history and as part of that it plays with stereotypes of the witch in popular culture. It’s funny and sad, but above all it is a visual delight and it makes you think. If that sounds like your chalice of hellbroth, then The Love Witch is for you. I enjoyed it, and I suspect before long I’ll be discussing it in the classroom as a cult classic.