Cast: Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Gian Keys, Jennifer Ingrum, Jared Sandford
Director: Anna Biller
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Appropriating past styles into a modern context in order to elicit waves of nostalgia is so commonplace these days that at first glance, writer-director Anna Biller's second feature, The Love Witch, appears to be little more than knowing pastiche. Biller nails the 1950s Technicolor melodrama/ 1970s Italian horror aesthetic, but her film has much more on its mind than simply parodying an outdated style of filmmaking. This might not be apparent at first, especially since the film revels in its kitschy visuals, stilted acting, and deliberate cheesiness, but there are layers beneath the artifice which proves Biller is really after deconstructing gender roles and most crucially, the fear of female sexuality.
When we first meet the titular character named Elaine (Samantha Robinson, absolute perfection), she's driving a red convertible, smoking a cigarette, and backed by purposefully tacky rear projection en route to a quiet house in Northern California. Her recent relationship has ended (visualized in amusing murderous flashbacks), and seeking a fresh start, she's soon greeted by a prudish landlord (Laura Waddell, hilariously upbeat), who seems genuinely intrigued by her new tenant's profession as a witch. Conjuring of "sex magic", wooing of ineffectual men who are instantly smitten before succumbing to emotional weakness, and meetings at Victorian tea houses with harpist in tow, ensue. There's also a murder mystery of sorts, featuring a square-jawed detective (Gian Keys) investigating the death of one of Elaine's many suitors, and a pair of cult-like white witches (Jennifer Ingrum, Jared Sanford) who oversee nude occult ceremonies.
What's fascinating about The Love Witch is that Elaine is neither an archaic vision of female objectification or a modern-day social justice warrior version of feminism. Instead, she seemingly holds contradictory values at once, and Biller milks these dichotomies for maximum effect. Countless times she claims to be looking for a man she can love by willingly giving him anything he wants (read: his fantasy woman), while at the same time using deceptive magic spells in order to sedate his natural macho urges. When she picks up a bohemian professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), he seeks little more than a good lay, but soon crumbles into fits of emotional hysteria post-love making. Elaine's coy response is to call him a "pussy" while smoking a cigarette before moving onto her next conquest, which leads us to believe this will be a story of female empowerment in which the woman will subdue male domination by killing off her various love interests. But there are also moments where Elaine's desire to be adored by a man feels heartfelt, and as Biller allows glances of our current era to creep in (a modern car in the background, the use of a cell phone, etc), there's a realization that this is really a fundamental story about the complexities of what it means to be a woman.
Even if The Love Witch was only concerned with pastiche, it would be an unqualified triumph since it's visual and auditory pleasures run deep. Acting not only as a writer/director, but also designing the costumes, sets, and handling editing duties, Biller emerges here as an artist fully in command of her craft. From the gorgeous 35mm cinematography, tacky wallpaper, brightly colored interiors, gaudy costumes, Technicolor lighting schemes, and appropriately corny score, The Love Witch fetishizes homage until it feels like something new. All the while, Samantha Robinson keeps us completely entranced (maybe it's simply one of those spells from that bubbling cauldron), navigating tricky scenes where she must come across as a mixture of sexy, dominant, submissive, narcissistic, and coy. More than anything, its what the film has to say underneath the psychedelic kitsch which registers most; that females are powerful, elusive, and complicated, and that no amount of dark magic can unlock the mysteries of a woman's heart.