The Love Witch (2016)
Written and Directed by Anna Biller
Starring Samantha Robinson, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Laura Waddell, Gian Keys, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, and Jennifer Ingrum
The double standard for gendered behavior in our society establishes rules that few can follow. It’s especially hard on women, who are still held to the artificial 1950s model of being subservient homemakers. In return men are expected to have no emotional life. The whole mess is a recipe for disaster, and that’s what we get in the comic love tragedy The Love Witch.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a young woman who desperately wants the fairy tale romance. She will commit herself body and soul to pleasing the man who can cherish her, but he must be manly and distant. This, of course, is not a combination that typically exists. To help the odds, she uses love spells and potions to make her chosen beaus fall deeply in love with her. The problem is that they become clingy and susceptible to separation anxiety, which is a complete turnoff for her.
The first thing you’ll notice about the movie is its style. Biller has a vibrant color palette and a mod esthetic. That can fool you into putting the film’s action in a 1960s time period, but it is actually modern. It’s just not the real world. The sets, wardrobe, and makeup create an environment for the story, wherein feelings are heightened and magic exists. This permeates Elaine’s apartment, which is decorated in rich hues and paintings influenced by tarot cards, but it is true of locations like the tea room, which is pink and frilly. In fact, in the two visits Elaine makes to the tea room, her own wardrobe shows her progression from outsider to member of the community.
At the start of the film Elaine is looking for a new beginning. Although not charged in her ex-husband’s death, suspicion has clung to her. She wants a new relationship that can let her correct her mistakes, as she sees them, and allow her to keep her man from from straying. It’s an understandable desire, but it drives her to ruin herself and everyone in her path. Her fellow witches, who practice sexual magic to achieve balance, don’t quite understand Elaine’s obsession.
Neither do some viewers, it seems. There’s a tendency to equate The Love Witch with European sexploitation films such as those by Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. On the surface, you can see the temptation; an attractive woman murdering her way through sexual encounters, a touch of unorthodox religion, and nudity could describe several of their movies. Even the retro wardrobes seem to reference the period of the heyday of these directors.
That’s not what Biller intended. She’s stated that she’s not interested in the genre and has only seen Franco’s Venus In Furs, which she didn’t like. The evidence of the film further disputes this connection. While Elaine is a dangerous woman, her goal is neither revenge or destruction. She seeks a relationship that reality denies her, and she suffers for it. Additionally, Biller’s care is on constant display in the professional attention to wardrobe, sets, and makeup — in marked contrast to the works of the masters of sleaze.
Other indicators are similarly superficial in relation to sexploitation films. The witches are not a secretive cult of evil and depraved anarchists. They’re just people who get together and have snacks. Occasionally they wear costumes and perform mock weddings. Are they less hung up about sexuality? Sure, but it’s not like they’re engaged in non-stop sadomasochistic orgies. Moreover, they tell Elaine that she’s obsessing. They’re supportive of her in general, but they express concern that she’s setting herself up for unending disappointment. Plus, here the emasculation and death is completely unintentional and undesired. Elaine is not a ghostly revenant exacting revenge but a breathing and sympathetic character.
The Love Witch creates its own cinematic world of beauty and tragedy, populated by people who are comfortable in their pieces of it. It isn’t until Elaine passes through, looking for what isn’t there, that the balance is disrupted and people’s lives fall apart. In a way, she can be seen as the serpent who initiates the fall from paradise, but she’s nothing so mythic or permanent. The witch is not a demon but a woman who is undone by her own fantasies.