“Men are like children: they’re easy to please, as long as you give them what they want.” The words of the titular love witch are both a firm statement and a knowing tap on the fourth wall from writer/director Anna Biller, the filmmaker who previously recrafted the look and feel of an exploitation movie in Viva. On the one hand, Biller seems to follow a wave of artists like Robert Rodriguez who have found plenty to mine from the drive-in movies of yesteryear. Yet rather than revel in the machismo of Machete, Biller is interested in a deliberate feminisim that both skewers and admires sexploitation in all of its stylised glory.
With THE LOVE WITCH, Biller turns her gaze to European horror films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, kind of a Mario Bava by way of Douglas Sirk. The beautiful modern day witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson), who mixes a fine selection of potions in her apartment, is looking for love. She picks up men, seduces them, but finds her love magic turns them into ill-fated victims. However, when she meets the man of her dreams, she is driven to pathological lengths to keep him in her life.
What is most striking about Biller’s film is that it is not a parody or comical take on the genre, playing any leanings in this direction completely straight. Everything is an authentic recreation of a period film, albeit with modern conveniences like mobile phones. Biller’s intention is not to lampoon the tropes of these easily mockable movies, but rather explore pathological narcissism and what it means to be a woman within this culture. She merely uses the exploitation picture as a delivery system. There are times when Biller’s message is more overt, and given the current state of internet culture this is probably not a bad thing. “According to the experts, man are very fragile,” muses Elaine. “They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.” It’s these moments when Biller gets closest to winking at the audience, having dissected the entire so-called “men’s rights” movement on social media in a single witticism.
Where THE LOVE WITCH succeeds the most is in its design and expert cinematographer M. David Mullen’s lush photography. Biller has described her lead character as a totally “constructed” woman, from her makeup and Victorian trappings to her manner of speaking. The same is true of the production design and the process behind the film, being one of the last films to cut an original camera negative on 35mm film stock, just as Biller did with Viva. Shaded to resemble the Technicolour films of the era, its rear projection, 1960s fashions and constantly present cigarettes are only occasionally punctuated by some modern conveniences. The rest is so well done that it’s the modern artifacts that appear like anachronisms. The sexuality, strip teases and violence are never overtly exploitative, or at least they are done with a constant awareness of self.
If anything, there’s almost too much of a good thing with THE LOVE WITCH, clocking in around two-hours and following a repeated pattern of obsession and death throughout. Yet for fans of Hitchcock and his contemporaries, there’s plenty to enjoy about this film. If you pause for thought along the way, and contemplate the role of sex in culture, then that’s just a magical bonus. The stuff cult film nights are made for, go seek this out if you think that style can be its own kind of substance.
THE LOVE WITCH is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016. It also plays at the Sydney Underground Film Festival 15-18 September 2016.
2016 | US | DIR: Anna Biller | WRITER: Anna Biller | CAST: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum | RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: Oscilloscope Laboratories | RATING: ★★★½