The Love Witch | 2016 | dir. Anna Biller | 2 hours | Oscilloscope
I heard about The Love Witch from this Rolling Stone article about Lana Del Rey. Five minutes into the movie, you wonder if you’re watching a genuine sixties B- movie, soft core porn, or both. I found myself checking my phone to make sure this movie was, in fact, made in 2016. The film commits 100% to a 60’s/ 70’s sexploitation aesthetic, making you feel like you truly stepped through a time warp.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is an unlucky- in- love witch with vivid blue eyeshadow and some pretty messed up ideas about relationships. After her ex- husband dies, she arrives in Eureka, California in search of true love. Her first victim is an outdoorsy French Literature professor who unexpectedly croaks after she gives him too many hallucinogenic herbs. Elaine pops a bloody tampon in a jar of urine, sticks it on top of his makeshift grave, and drives back to the city in search of the next man of her dreams.
She finds him in Richard, the husband of one of her friends. Richard (Robert Seeley, exceptionally delightful) wants some excitement in his life. Elaine seduces him, but he falls too hard and eventually kills himself when she cuts him off. Is it witchcraft? Or is Elaine’s love really too powerful?
Finally, Elaine sets her sights on Griff, the chiseled constable of Eureka. Griff suffers from toxic masculinity and plays Elaine’s love game for a while, but he can’t ignore the facts- Elaine is a murderer! And after he arrests her, then rescues her from rape, she murders him too! Bahahaha!
“This movie is about the female experience,” says writer/ director Anna Biller, “which can be a contradictory, confusing thing. It’s a male fantasy myth that a woman who displays herself sexually and who seems to enjoy it is only and always empowered. There are layers of conformism, anger and self-hate in there too.”
Biller chose this aesthetic, which marks most of her work, because she likes it. “I was obsessed with the look and feel of the classics – the hair, the makeup, the glamour, the dresses,” she says. She cites My Fair Lady and Tokyo Story as key artistic influences.
“I don’t think I’m working in the tradition of exploitation film,” Biller says. “We’ve got equal-opportunity male and female nudity, you know. We see male butt.”
And therein lies my main problem with The Love Witch. Making feminist work does not mean debasing men, or showing women in traditionally male roles. The Favourite, Hustlers, The Kitchen and The Love Witch all drag women to the level of seedy men. Elaine is straight- up terrible. She lies, cheats and murders. I don’t empathize with her sociopathy just because she’s a woman. If men and women are gonna be equal, can we aim a little higher?
And while Biller provides a delightful inversion of a cinema tradition that sexually exploits women, she faithfully modeled The Love Witch after grindhouse movies that are intentionally ridiculous. The medium is the message, and The Love Witch made female sexuality look laughable.
I actually think the film has a great story: a beautiful woman who just wants love turns to witchcraft and accidentally murders all her love interests. Sounds heartbreaking, right? But The Love Witch goes all the way with its bad- on- purpose vibe, and it’s very, very hard to take seriously.