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Despite looking and sounding like the love child of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1969) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), editor, producer, composer, production and costume designer, director, and writer Anna Biller doesn’t consider her The Love Witch (2016) to be an homage to the sexploitation horror features of the 1960s and ‘70s.
She prefers to assert that she primarily takes cues from Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Carl Dreyer, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with their most famous directorial quirks stirred in with thickly spread psychedelic camp. In making The Love Witch, Biller sought to craft a movie for women, not to celebrate movies renowned for exploiting women.
But in a way does the film come across as a bringing together of the best of both worlds: it has the flavors and stylistics of a particularly good psychedelic fantasy, drops — for the most part — any salacious elements served on the side, and comes out a pastiche so mighty that it hardly even seems to be a pastiche at all, more a statement that just so happens to embody the look of a Technicolor Hitchcock romp and the feel of a Russ Meyer movie.
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And it’s one of 2016’s best. It finds its titular protagonist in the leggy (and remarkably gifted) Samantha Robinson, a newcomer who looks like the object of every Vietnam War era man’s desires. Presented in period clothing, accessorized by garish coral blue eyeshadow and jet black hair cascading down her shapely body, she is Elaine, a witch relocating from the city to a small, gossipy town looking to abandon her dark past. Only one thing is on her mind, and that thing is the finding of a hunk of a man and falling in love with him in a cinematic kind of way.
She settles down into her new life effortlessly. She calls a Gothic Victorian apartment designed with the gaudy decoration of a surrealistic Alejandro Jodorowsky lark home and spends her days mixing together love potions she hopes will help snag her a Mr. Right of her own. So supernaturally beautiful — men literally turn their bodies 180 degrees just to catch a better glimpse of her as they pass her on the sidewalk — the process isn’t hard. All Elaine has to do is initiate conversation, invite herself to her object of affection’s humble abode, make him a home-cooked meal — spiked with one of her elixirs, of course — and seduce him before the clock strikes 12.
Problem is is that Elaine hasn’t quite yet found the right combination of man and potion — usually a guy’s much too weak to handle a mystical concoction and ends up loving Elaine too much, so much so that every one of her boy toys has ended up dead. She just wants to find someone, and not someone just to love herself. She wants to be loved back, and is determined to make her wildest romantic dreams a reality.
Elaine scoffs at any ideas of feminism — her self-possession immediately nosedives when she isn’t doing everything in her power to cater to the opposite sex’s fantasies — and that’s one of The Love Witch’s most intriguing distinctions, especially since it is, at its core, a feminist film. It showcases Elaine both as a steeply influential woman (just look at how easily she can ensnare anyone in her funny games with just the right shimmy of the hips) and a deeply troubled woman, a woman so deeply troubled as a result of living in a society in which the female gender is expected to do and be so many things and is essentially vilified when they don’t meet the high standards set in stone.
We’d like to think that Elaine is a product of the exploitation movie 101 woodwork, but little asides here and there reveal that she used to be married, used to be a little chubby, and used to be a little scattered, mocked because she couldn’t wear domesticity like a glove and didn’t always fit the bill of how an appealing woman of her age should look and act. She’s become a witch only recently, having been manipulated by a strange sort of guru (Jared Sanford) who’s convinced her that serving herself to a man is the utmost priority in one’s life. Paired with her thin self-confidence and Elaine has virtually become a monster. She can’t be stopped until she’s believed her latest delusion that she’s in love and that the man she loves is in love with her, too.
The Love Witch, then, is a showcasing of feminism’s importance. Take your individuality for granted and your life might as well become a slave to your obsessions with pleasing another. And Biller slyly questions the role sexuality has on our culture, and ponders why we’re so obsessed with sex and falling in love and how damaging the effects of trying to get your hands on one or both can be when you begin to take it too seriously.
But it never feels like a message movie because it isn’t: what Biller’s going for, I think, is cheeky satire magnifying how toxically love crazy our culture is by using an attractive woman’s quest as a catalyst for the mélange. Resulting is a rapturously enjoyable film, confident in its presentation and in its themes.
But The Love Witch’s greatest characteristic is its visual design, fundamentally an amalgamation of pop art, ‘60s melodrama, and the neon ostentatiousness of Italian horror. Not a thing about it isn’t thoroughly deliberated by Biller, who quite literally pieced together everything about the film except for its photography and its performances. That deliberation, so comprehensive, is thrilling to experience — even the dialogue is stilted as a way to imitate the presentational acting style best seen in vintage soaps.
And yet in lieu of its emulating a specific (and obscure) type of cinema that proliferated during a lost era, The Love Witch is accessible and lighthearted — even those unfamiliar with the features Biller so offhandedly mirrors will appreciate its composition and its knowing humor. By dedicating herself to a genre popular a half-century ago, Biller has somehow made one of the most original, arresting films of the last ten years. Who needs Oscar-baiting realism when you can have lovingly laid out, hyper-feminine artifice?