A Different Kind of Love: The Love Witch (2016)
Elaine, the lead of Anna Biller’s phantasmagoric 2016 film The Love Witch, makes as memorable an entrance as any movie monster in recent memory. We are introduced to this head-turning brunette beauty, deftly portrayed by Samantha Robinson, as she drives into a new town, escaping a dead husband and a nervous breakdown. The rear-projected background behind her as she drives, smokes, and narrates her story in voice over, clues us in immediately to the unreality of Elaine. Her dress and convertible are the same shade of Dario Argento deep red, and her winged eyeliner looks like it will carry her away at any moment. Yes, Elaine is a witch, but she wants what all of us want—love—and unlike us, she’s willing to kill for it.
The Love Witch is a singular vision in a way few films are. Anna Biller wrote, produced, directed, and edited the film; if your eyebrows haven’t arched yet, she also composed the music and designed the instantly iconic sets and costumes. Filmed in sensual 35 mm, like a Technicolor dream, The Love Witch looks like it was plucked from another time; if not for the jarring appearance of modern cars, you could easily imagine that this was a long-lost ‘70s horror film rescued from a crumbling vault, with the film cannister smelling of vinegar and perfume.
Fittingly, Elaine herself feels like a woman from another time, frequently expressing her desire for a prince on a white horse, a man who can be won simply by giving him all the sex and attention he wants. With her twinkling voice and dimpled smiles, Elaine looks like a ‘Stepford wife’, but that illusion hides an iron will. While she enacts her elaborate beauty ritual, putting on her wig and rubbing ointment on her shapely legs, we hear the voices of both her emotionally abusive father and husband, chiding her for being crazy and fat, a bad wife incapable of making dinner on time. If she’s going to be dehumanized by men, well, then she won’t be human anymore. Elaine uses magic and her own wiles to make herself into the ultimate fantasy woman, and she starts by (it is implied) poisoning her husband with a goblet the size of a baby’s head. “I was reborn,” Elaine tells us joyously, “as a witch.”
If Elaine represents a certain kind of fantasy, it is a narcissistic and self-defeating one. Using her sexuality to ensnare a string of lantern-jawed Mark Trail lookalikes fails to bring her any fulfillment, because she clings to a fantastical idea of courtly love that never really existed (best represented in an absurd Renaissance Faire sequence). Her friend Trish (Laura Waddell) warns, “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” and there’s no refuge even in Elaine’s coven, which is itself a trap created by men. Her initiation is filmed like a rape, and the moment in which Elaine’s lumpen, middle-aged coven leader leans in to kiss her and she coldly turns her cheek to him speaks volumes. Inevitably, her suitors fail her, being too emotional, too weak, too pathetic, and they must be disposed of.
One of the most refreshing aspects of The Love Witch is that it doesn’t care if a male audience likes it or not. It doesn’t supply the Hammer Horror violence we expect in movies that look like this, instead immersing us in Elaine’s world of tearooms and fairy dresses—and her mental unraveling. The camera fixes on Elaine writhing in her bed in white lingerie, but we also see her as a flesh and blood woman who pisses in mason jars and uses bloody tampons to make witchy concoctions. (This was, incidentally, the point in the movie where my friend’s husband walked out.) Perhaps the most recognizable moment for me in the film is where, after a bout of orgiastic sex, Elaine’s lover Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) unloads his feelings about women, and how they are never the right combination of bright and beautiful. As Elaine finds herself comforting him, we see the light go out of her eyes, the dying of her hope that “maybe this one will be different.”
But Elaine isn’t a feminist anti-hero either. She thinks nothing of seducing her friend’s husband, who meets an unhappy end, and while she twists herself to fit a certain feminine ideal, she despises men she doesn’t see as properly masculine. “What a pussy,” she thinks, listening to Wayne cry out for her, and her words hit like a stab to the heart.
When it was released, critics were quick to compare The Love Witch to ‘70s sexploitation films or the “everything is a remix” stylings of Quentin Tarantino. (Going back to the introduction of Elaine driving, it is difficult to watch without thinking of Uma Thurman’s similar scene in Kill Bill Vol. 2; knowing that Thurman was injured filming that scene, and that it was covered up for years, opens up a different discussion about filmmaking and toxic, misogynist power structures.) Words like “spoof” and “schlock” were also thrown around, but neither really describe the film. According to interviews, Anna Biller’s influences actually go farther back to the technicolor melodramas of the 1940s, and films like Leave Her to Heaven and Black Narcissus, where beautiful, dark-haired women are driven to violence by their explosive desires.
Inevitably, Elaine is alone, bloodied, betrayed by reality and lost in the prison of her desires. Anna Biller severs the male gaze from this story of a woman’s need for a love that, if it exists, will always remain elusive. For the Love Witch, the spell will always break.