The Love Witch – Anna Biller

Anna Biller Productions, 2016

Starring Samantha Robinson, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Laura Waddell & Gian Keys

As both historically persecuted group and modern western fantasy, the witch is a figure swept up in and recuperated by feminist thought. As The Love Witch toys with to the ninth, kitsch degree, she embodies (literally) a ‘dangerous’ female sexuality, which in coy and terrifyingly volatile ways has the power to violently upend the world of men, along with all their arrogant conceits of control. Ha!

This very odd, wonderfully-stylised, intellectualised melodrama by director Anna Biller is set in a time where phones, pagan rituals and Victorian tearooms co-exist, and it is the almost excessively beautiful Elaine (Samantha Robinson) who stabs patriarchy through the heart. Surviving in a world where witches are an open yet mistrusted sect, Elaine arrives in a small American town with her long black wig, lipstick, potions and bottles (one of which she later fills with a used tampon and her own urine to place on an over-sexed libertine’s grave). She is alone, having just broken off with her emotionally-abusive ex-husband, Jerry. A sweet, chipmunk-cheeked version of Naomi Watts welcomes her. A very deliberate foil, Trish (Laura Waddell) gets Elaine set up in an attic adorned with colourful Wiccan décor. Here, she paints pretty bad, almost child-like medieval-style porn and thinks about love.

It is what she wants more than anything else. Engorged by her own narcissism, she expresses this freely, ravishingly. With ‘sex magic’ (cue flashing eyes close-up), she does all she can to eke it from the men around her. Yet from the rugged woodsman loner to the loving married man, their lust reduces them where it empowers her. They become weak, effeminate, needy, as they sob over her garters and perfectly-orbed breasts.

For all its clever playing of tropes and themes, which grapple with very modern debates over the female body and the male gaze, the dialogue is never circuitous: there are some fabulous lines. For instance, the troubled Elaine’s “Men are so easy to please so long as we give them what they want!”. Or later, entering rarely into the mind of Griff (Gian Keys), “The perfect woman exists only in a man’s mind. When she tries to love you more, give you more – you end up suffocating. Drowning in estrogen. The most awful feeling!”

It’s a strange, sumptuous, disorientating two-hour journey. In its soap opera staginess, its garish lighting, its adoration of exquisite camp, its fetishisation of certain objects, its obsession with food and sex and bodies and death (there’s a nice transition between the thud of a shovel into grave-dirt and the plunge of a spoon into mud cake), I found myself at times wondering: is this where Sabrina and Mario Bava meet?

I have yet to quite accept that this film was made in 2016. It feels like a very progressive film made at least twenty years ago. See it.

Published July 2016 in Pelican Magazine

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