'Past and the present bleed into each other in a weird timeless hybrid'Oscilloscope

Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is sleazy, schlocky, tacky, and overwrought. It’s also an example of cinematic virtuosity. An ‘auteur’ whose idiosyncratic vision is crystallised in even the most minute details, Biller not only directed the film but edited it, composed part of the score, and painstakingly created and collected props, sets and costumes over the course of seven-and-a-half years.

The film opens with Elaine – artist, sorceress, and vendor of organic witchcraft products – cruising down the highway in a red dress and red convertible mustang, make-up and hairstyle conjuring Soledad Miranda in a Jesús Franco movie. Capable of bewitching men with a single glance, Elaine leaves a trail of romantic destruction in her wake, starting by disposing of her whiningly sexist ex-husband Jerry.

Throughout the narrative, Elaine encounters an assortment of specimens of disappointing masculinity. “I love women, does that bother you?” asks a cardigan-wearing eighteenth century literature professor who fancies himself a libertine. Elaine’s friend’s seemingly devoted husband confides that he secretly dreams of being a character in an old Steve McQueen movie or a western, “one of those crazy kinda gangsters with a sexy, messed up girl on my arm.” A chiselled-jawed police sergeant briefly shows a flash of self-knowledge when musing that the “feminine ideal only exists in a man’s mind,” but promptly ruins it by claiming that he’s “drowning in oestrogen, the most awful feeling” when confronted with the affection of a flesh-and-blood female partner.

“But is her sex magic feminist? Do her spells really work, or are they just a metaphor for masculine fragility?”

It’s deliciously satisfying watching this parade of beefcakes meet their tailor-made demise at Elaine’s perfectly-manicured hands. But is her sex magic feminist? Do her spells really work, or are they just a metaphor for masculine fragility? Does she wear that specific shade of blue eyeshadow because she enjoys it, or to seduce potential mates? Am I jealous of her lingerie collection because of internalised oppression, or because it looks nice? Who knows. These ambiguities are a central theme of the film, and Biller doesn’t offer any easy answers.

Furniture dealer Trish tells Elaine that feminism is all about denying men sex, while fellow witch Barbara insists that equality only comes by embracing a uniquely feminine eroticism. Both positions rely on a belief in irreconcilable sexual differences, but the film’s most powerful commentary on desire rings true regardless of gender identity: be careful what you wish for. When the characters in The Love Witch get what they want, or what they think they want, it never ends well for them.

Biller’s masterful editing uses flashbacks and voiceovers to craft a narrative structure as intricately strange as Elaine’s paintings (also created by Biller herself, showing occult orgies or a woman holding aloft a man’s heart… one of my favourite moments is a montage of Elaine “painting,” ineffectually stroking an already-finished tableau with a seemingly dry brush). There’s a pivotal Renaissance cod marriage scene which is shown twice; initially with a jaunty lute song playing merrily in the background, and later in total silence. This simple edit has the uncanny effect of totally transfiguring the emotional register of the scene. First hilarious, then heart-breaking, it confronts us with the bones of the tragedy lying beneath the comedic frills.

“When the characters in The Love Witch get what they want, or what they think they want, it never ends well for them”

Like her first film Visa (2007), Biller’s genre-defying reworking of previous cinematic techniques not only nods to cult subgenres of the past (this time, occult horror of the 70s, 60’s pulp novels, and 50’s melodrama), but also places her on a par with the greats she references as influences: Hitchcock, Sirk, Fassbinder, and Dreyer. Unlike Stranger Things’ nostalgia for 80’s pop culture, or Final Girls’ metafictional parodying of slasher tropes, The Love Witch can’t be comfortably classified as either rose-tinted reminiscence or winking pastiche. Past and the present bleed into each other in a weird timeless hybrid: retro fashion mixes with contemporary cars and technology; 35mm widescreen Technicolor juxtaposes current-day gender politics.

Despite the deadpan delivery and sumptuously kitsch settings, the film’s tone is often gut-wrenchingly sincere, bordering on polemical. “Love me, love me, love me, love me,” incants Elaine, staring bleary-eyed up into the camera, touching herself on silk sheets while remembering her creepy initiation into the coven, and in that moment, I do. I love her, despite her dubious politics, despite her murderous tendencies, despite her devastating lack of self-awareness. Played with less vulnerability, the character could have been annoying or callous, but Samantha Robinson pulls off the role flawlessly.

Elaine’s father is never visibly present in the film, but we hear his voice echoing threateningly in her memories: “If you’re not crazy then you’re stupid… which is it?” It’s a testament to the impossible choices women – let alone witches – often face in a patriarchal society, where none of the available options seem particularly liberating. I was reminded of Beyoncé’s lyric in Hold Up: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?”

The Love Witch might not deliver ways out of oppressive gender dynamics, but it places the society which constructs them under scrutiny. And, for better or worse, it looks great while doing it

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