Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is so beautifully made that, at a certain point, you start to wonder why everyone else isn’t trying as hard. This immaculate tribute to 1960s Technicolor and soap opera melodrama, which played at Fantasia Film Festival, is absolutely stunning to look at, and shows an incredible clarity of vision, voice and skill.
Although the set-up could suggest a winking parody (rear projection, witches facing prejudice from narrow-minded small town folk, love spells going horribly wrong), Biller’s love for the material that she is referencing is contagious. There are very funny moments (always self-aware and mostly in the Victorian tea room), this is something else entirely. It’s not long before we’re under the filmmaker’s spell as surely as the hapless men are under the witch’s.
Samantha Robinson plays the titular character, a woman who escaped from an abusive relationship with the help of a San Francisco witch coven and a spell that left her ex-husband dead. Now she has her heart set on finding her true love, a real man who will give her all the love and affection she needs, the hero of her Tarot cards. But finding a man who doesn’t prove to be a spineless wimp or dolt proves to be a difficult task, and the bodies are piling up…
In addition to writing and directing, Biller is the film’s editor, costume designer, composer, art director, set decorator, production designer…oh, and producer. The gorgeous sets, costumes, lighting, cinematography…really, gorgeous everything, there is more here than a straightforward pastiche. Biller uses the tropes of the soap-y erotic horrors of the period and the sheer beauty of the world she’s conjured to explore Elaine’s femininity and power.
Robinson’s performance is excellent, creating a character that is absolutely steadfast in her view of the world and what she wants from it, and the correct balance in a male-female relationship. For her, men are fragile creatures (“Can you believe most men have never even seen a used tampon?”) who should be given sex whenever they want it, but catering to the fantasies of her conquests doesn’t produce the desired result. Her power over them is never in doubt, these men just aren’t her match. Still, she’s unwavering in her belief that she will find love, and that’s where square-jawed detective Griff (the note-perfect Gian Keys) comes in. Something will have to give, and Biller creates real sympathy for this character who’s so consistently disappointed in her search for someone to live up to her dream, in spite of everything she’s done.
There’s also an interesting balance between the film’s celebration of Elaine’s impossibly pristine beauty which renders every (nearly) every man she encounters a helpless, horny mess, her child-like romantic fantasies depicted in her artwork, and Biller’s decision to show the elements of her love spells which would shock the men that she’s seducing, including urine and bloody tampons. The surface pleasures are certainly a joy, but Biller’s voice sounds clearly throughout.
We should also take a moment to applaud the cast for absolutely nailing the tone. In addition to Robinson and Keys, Laura Waddell’s neighbour/pawn Trish is great, and Jeffrey Vincent Parise is hilarious as the first of Elaine’s eager but doomed conquests. M David Mullen’s cinematography also deserves the highest praise.
The two hour running time may test the patience of some viewers and it will have to fight to break out of the “niche appeal” bracket, but The Love Witch deserves to find a wider audience beyond those of us who automatically jump at the prospect of an intricately crafted love-letter to erotic Euro horrors. This is really quite wonderful.