2 out of 5
Directed by: Anna Biller
There’s surely a few different ways to view Anna Biller’s 60s camp-influenced The Love Witch, and depending on your feelings towards / reverence for the concepts and ideas suggested or brought forth by those views, appreciation for this 2-hour, erotica horror-lite will flutter up and down, like so many neon-eyeshadowed eyelids.
Perhaps the most on-the-nose take is to read this as a straight feminist flick, using its nude-ogling and “women are powerful when they’re acting in service of men” messaging as ironic messages for the modern world, all The Love Witch’s men sketches of sexist stereotypes and getting the deaths they deserve. While Biller isn’t not taking some swipes at gender politics, I don’t think this take is the intention, though because it is quite in one’s face, and because the film maybe doesn’t offer much more – one of the “problems” is that it is very surface level – I can understand getting caught up on it.
That leads to the flip-side of the take, that The Love Witch is pure homage, including that completely unsubtle messaging. We’re awash in 60s technicolor, and although the movie takes place in modern times, sets are staged in a classical sense and scenes are shot with the kind of florid flatness of the era – very set pans, very “squared” framing, but lots of production design and glowing closeups of faces. The dialogue is delivered in a stilted fashion, and the plot is never ahead of the viewer, as ‘love witch’ Elaine (Samantha Robinson) moves to a town in California and begins loving some of its male citizens to death, inciting an investigation by – and relationship with, natch – square-jawed copper Griff Meadows (Gian Keys). I think this is closer to the truth, as Biller goes to a clearly passionate extent to mimic that era of film, clunky editing and chintzy music (also Biller) included, but there are notes of self-awareness and modernization throughout that aren’t parodic enough to make this shtick, but also prevent this from feeling like the exact intention.
That leaves us somewhere between. Biller clearly has a love for this style of film, and so I think the desire to make such a film was an honest one, and she close a story that aligned with that. But she’s also a feminist of today, and so she plays with that concept throughout. The speeches about female empowerment through glamour are legit; celebrate the female form. But the speeches about relationships and gender dynamics are gray – the men are stereotypes, but so are the women, thirsting after perfection and pining for lost loves. Elaine constantly complains about how her boyfriends “act like girls” after her love potion reduces them to obsessive attachments; she’s part of a sex celebrating cult but takes snipes at the rapey leader; and notably doesn’t participate directly in the cult’s practices. Everyone is moderately predatory; a bid to “burn the witch” at a later point in the flick turns inevitably into an attempt of sexual assault. And somewhat more subtly, but sealing the deal (for me), is that Elaine’s desire for a suitable suitor can only be achieved through fantasy.
This stuff is fascinating, and Biller’s binding of that to a sincere representation – tonally, visually – of a particular era is really cool. I just wish it was in service of a more interesting movie, one with some deeper subtext, and as wholly consistent as Biller’s efforts suggest. Because while the concept, as explained, makes for a fun thesis, the two ideas – 60s erotica flick; modern feminism – are not especially balanced, leading to that on-the-nose vibe. The discussions about the movie are more compelling than what’s presented. That would be more tolerable if the 2 hour runtime offered up enough distraction, but it barely does – as mentioned, part of the approach here is to be completely upfront, so there’s no mystery or tension. Cat-and-mouse between Elaine and the police could’ve added some intrigue, but this isn’t really introduced until about 3/4ths of the way through, otherwise just giving us extended flirtations between Elaine and her current target. We could just sink into the vibe, then, but there’s some immersion breakers here, as well: while the movie finds its stride at a certain point, initial line reads are halfway between the purposeful stilted style and something a bit too quick and actually acted, like the actors aren’t quite understanding of what they’re supposed to do. Some exterior shots early on also can’t quite be as controlled as the interiors, leading to a shock where you can’t deny that you’re in modern times. My consistency comment comes into play, here: had this juxtaposition been maintained throughout the movie, it could be seen as intentional meta, but it’s not, so it doesn’t. A late appearance of a sole cell phone at one point kind of settled the matter for me – it’s not done with purpose to highlight its visual disruption, it’s done for convenience of the plot, and it seems like it would’ve been easy enough to avoid.
I respect The Love Witch, but I was also undeniably bored by it, and couldn’t find an angle I could consistently latch on to which made its dragging story more interesting, even when the concept and slavish dedication to visuals appealed.