The Love Witch (2016)
Written & Directed by Anna Biller
We find Elaine speeding down a California coastal highway, running away from the death of her ex-husband Larry. She starts a new life in Arcata, taking an apartment her friend Barbara used to live in, still decked out in the witchy paraphernalia that links these two women. Elaine has one focus in life, the attainment of the love of a man. Using magic, she begins seducing local men who end up overwhelmed by the feelings that bubble up inside them. Unable to process all of this love they meet their ultimate fate and Elaine shrugs it off and move onto the next guy. However, the police are investigating, and it’s only a matter of time until this witch is caught for her crimes.
The Love Witch is a playful satire on contemporary gender roles seen through a stunningly retro stylistic lens. Director Anna Biller knows her 1960s media and brings the perfect crew together who, through production design, makeup, costumes, lighting, and music recreate the obscured vision of life B-movies of the late 60s/early 70s presented to audiences. The acting is pitch perfect for the period, a style of performance that was perfect for its time but feels dated now being used to play up the absurdity of the ideas on screen. While a film like Robert Eggers’ The Witch might feel tonally dissonant from The Love Witch, both films are playing in the same thematic waters.
Beneath the pastel, brightly lit sets and makeup is a deep dive into the way men and women have struggled for power. The words “love” and “sex” are substituted continuously for one another, primarily by Elaine who talks about using the traditional occult sex magicks and using them in her spells to find her soulmate. That confusion of love and sex is one used in outdated dialogues on the ultimate desires of men and women. You’ve heard the tired refrain that men want sex while women are looking for relationships. One of the questions the audience may ask themselves is to what extent is Elaine playing a game with the men she encounters. It’s a parade of types: the liberal and open college professor, a husband with a lackluster sex life, and a steely cop who sees Elaine as a “little lady.”
Elaine speaks in dialogue that starts as sincere and seductive, but as the effects of her spells kick in, she takes on the air of snarkiness, almost mocking her conquests. The only man she appears genuine with is the police detective, and we have proof of this because she refrains from feeding him any elixirs or casting spells over him. Her actions also show a breakdown in the ongoing arguments about what feminism is. She revels in her sexuality and using her body as a way to gain the attention of men. Objectification is displayed as a male weakness, a state of mind that makes them open to female control.
Many scenes take place in the female only tearoom and the male-dominated strip club, with the former proving to be a place where women lie to each other and the latter where the women strengthen their control of the men. However, there are always wrinkles in these dynamics. When Elaine’s role in the professor’s demise is revealed, even the female waitresses at the club turn on her. Elaine betrays the first person she meets in Arcata as well, and in turn, Elaine is hit with a tragic ending. The Love Witch is presented as something, but beneath the surface is a deeply complex picture about gender roles and the power of women. This is a movie that demands multiple viewings and analysis to reveal everything thing that’s working inside of it.