The Love Witch (2016)

Anna Biller’s film is a heady trip through camp and cinema

By Zeke Trautenberg

“I just use sex magic to create love magic.” This deadly serious affirmation by Elaine (Samantha Robinson) encapsulates the campy charm and potent social critiques of Anna Biller’s second feature film. Witches like Elaine embody American’s concern with femininity and female sexuality. From the Salem witch trials to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) to Robert Egger’s recent film The Witch (2015), witches are transgressive symbols of nonconformity, resistance, and the assertion of female power.  

The Love Witch begins with Elaine fleeing the Bay Area, where she murdered her ex-husband. She moves into an apartment in a Victorian mansion in the small Northern California town of Eureka. Unhappy being alone, Elaine soon begins to lure local men into loving her, relying on her potent glare, tarot cards, psychedelics, and potions. As she pursues affection, she reconnects with her occult group and becomes entangled in a criminal investigation led by a daft, Rock Hudson-esque policeman.

The most striking element of The Love Witch is its use of color. Shot in 35mm, the film is a technicolor kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and white. Each sequence of the film is painstakingly designed, from the all-women pastel pink and white Victorian tea room to the blood-red bedroom of the witch protagonist Elaine. The costumes are similarly bold, and include miniskirts, bell-bottoms, mouthfuls of garters and stockings, and an off-white kinky white lace tea-time dress (Biller’s mother Sumiko was a noted fashion designer in Los Angeles).  

The film’s production design echoes the technicolor Euro-gothic of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and François Ozon’s pattern-filled fable of the turbulent 1970s France in Potiche (2010). Argento’s story of a ballet dancer trapped in a haunted mansion and Ozon’s fable of female empowerment vis-à-vis benevolent capitalist management, upend narratives of the damsel in distress.  In this same spirit, Elaine does not wait patiently for her true love to appear. She uses witchcraft to exert control over men and endeavors to fulfill their sexual fantasies. Yet despite her stated desire to please men, the way Elaine says "baby” belies feelings of derision towards the needy men who cling to her.

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's  Suspiria  (1977) . Photo: Seda Spettacoli.

Jessica Harper in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). Photo: Seda Spettacoli.

Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon's  Potiche  (2010).  Photo: Mandarin Films.

Catherine Deneuve in François Ozon's Potiche (2010). Photo: Mandarin Films.

In addition to their emphasis on style and color, these three films embody what Susan Sontag called “the sensibility” of camp. Like Suspiria and Potiche, The Love Witch depicts a queer, self-reflexive sense of sexuality that is embodied by a powerful and transgressive protagonist. Like the gothic mansion in Suspiria and the factory in Potiche, The Love Witch features a wealth of campy settings, including an occult prayer temple, a burlesque theater, a Renaissance fair, and the aforementioned Victorian tea room. These campy locales are augmented by film’s allusions to popular icons of camp like Charles Manson and Aleister Crowley. And in full observance of this sensibility, The Love Witch concludes with a wedding; however, in true campy style, Biller subverts the blissful moment with a close-up of our forever-unsatisfied witch perched atop a horse-cum-unicorn named Patchouli.

Elaine enjoys a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

Elaine enjoys a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

The cinephilic themes and the metacinematic qualities of Biller’s second feature film are an inextricable part of its campiness. The film opens with a shot of Elaine driving her red mustang on a sea-side highway, glaring like a femme fatale Steve McQueen while she chants "I am starting a new life" (ironically, one of Elaine’s victims describes McQueen as the personification of freedom and masculinity). And when Elaine arrives at her destination, Eureka, the camera lingers on the town’s local movie theater, drawing the viewer's attention to the celluloid nature of the film’s fictional universe. One of the most direct cinematic allusions in the film is to Marlene Dietrich’s character in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930). Like Dietrich’s gender-bending burlesque dancer, Elaine is a campy icon, who embodies traditional feminine ideals (“I always lines my clothing” she tells one love interest) and the subversive qualities of an uncompromising and powerful woman.

Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's  The Blue Angel  (1930).  Photo: UFA.

Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930). Photo: UFA.

The cinephilic and metacinematic elements of The Love Witch are also reflected in the range of filmmaking techniques employed by Biller and director of photography M. David Mullen. The film features extreme close-ups, intricate mise-en-scène compositions, and at least one memorable zoom shot. These techniques are an homage to horror films and New Hollywood cinema, and underscore the film’s knowing embrace of film history. In addition to the clever use of camera and staging, the voice-overs play a key role in the film’s critical stance towards gender, femininity, masculinity, and social relationships. In one notable sequence, viewers hear the dueling, contradictory thoughts of Elaine and her Rock Hudson-like love interest. Both are outwardly smiling, but Elaine’s thoughts of a love-filled future are brilliantly juxtaposed with the dismissive and hostile interior monologue of her strong-jawed partner who describes how he will soon be “drowning in estrogen.” These voice-in-off monologues highlight the entrenched and ugly social mores underlying these traditional male and female cinematic archetypes, as well as the tragic and ill-fated nature of Elaine's search for her prince charming.

Love is the ambiguous longing that drives Elaine throughout the film. Yet the obstacles she faces in her quest are intractable. Men, she notes, are like precious china must be handled accordingly: “According to the experts men are very fragile,” she says. “They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way. You have to be tricky.” Despite her best and most devious efforts, the love witch cannot find anyone who would give themselves to her with all their heart and soul.

Director: Anna Biller

Running Time: 120 minutes

Country: USA

Photos: Oscilloscope/Anna Biller

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)