by Riyana Rose
The Love Witch is Anna Biller’s cinematic balm for those of us who have been experiencing a dark month of the soul ever since the orange-tufted groper-in-chief claimed the presidency.
It’s an intoxicating blend of funhouse feminism and a heady retro-chic 60s aesthetic that practically drips off of the screen, and quite a few doltish chauvinists end up dead.
In a word, it’s delicious.
Biller wrote, directed, and designed the sets and costumes for the film, instilling female leadership and empowerment into it’s very blueprint.
This makes the protagonist, Elaine–a beautiful witch who is desperately in-love-with-love and is everything but a feminist heroine– seem a counter-intuitive choice at first.
While Elaine’s successful-but-bland friend Trish argues for gender equality and mutual respect between the sexes, Elaine spouts a gendered dynamic about relationships that feels as pulpy and vintage as her 60s-inspired sex-kitten wardrobe.
Her secret to success in love is “to give men what they want,” and to become “their ultimate fantasy,” a philosophy she mixes with a healthy dose of love & sex magic and herbal concoctions that unfortunately leads to notably unhealthy repercussions for her lovers.
Elaine is played masterfully by Samantha Robinson, blue-lidded and with silky gravity-defying lashes, whose stilted speech patterns and simpering purrs of “oh baby” feel as indebted to a modern Lana Del Rey video as to the retro B-movies of bygone days.
Like Lana, Elaine plays with both the power and the vulnerability inherent in meticulously crafting and taking on a persona of perfect female desirability, a porcelain mask that the men in the film project their passions and insecurities upon, at their own peril.
Eventually she manages to fall in love with the strong, charismatic man of her dreams – unfortunately, he also happens to be the detective investigating her for homicide.
Beyond merely the allure of being the fragile, submissive, devoted sexpot, Elaine’s power comes from being a witch, initiated by a cosmic-and-slightly-creepy Northern California couple that lead a coven of renaissance-faire-esque bohemians and who frequent burlesque clubs as a backdrop for the tutelage.
Playing with the archetype of the witch– as both a powerful and titillating symbol for women and the essential femme fatale for men– was one of the things that inspired Biller to begin the project.
“I wanted to make a movie about a witch, because I think that every woman is made to feel like a witch by the men who don’t understand her: that is, mysterious, dangerous, different, abnormal,” Biller says. “Elaine is monstrous, wreaking havoc wherever she goes, but she is also sympathetic, because she has essentially been driven mad by being a woman, and is struggling to find love and acceptance in a world that has disappointed her at every turn.”
The Love Witch is the most recent incarnation in the modern-day revival of the archetype of the witch, which is showing up in all aspects of pop-culture and social media.
A quick search for #witch on Instagram brings up nearly 3 million results, mostly of young twenty-somethings sporting black lipstick, and altars with large chunks of quartz crystal and animal skulls on them. Witches are bringing back kitchen apothecaries, selling handmade candles and soap on Etsy, and crowdfunding unique, newly-minted tarot deck projects.
“It’s tempting to write these things off as being merely superficial affectations, but to do so would be a grave underestimation,” writes Anne Theriault in her essay, The Real Reason Women Love Witches. “Beneath all that glossy packaging hums the same idea that has tantalized girls for millennia: the fact that to be a witch is to be a woman with power in a world where women are often otherwise powerless. On some level, all of the contemporary trappings of witchiness tap into that desire to feel powerful.”
Much of the power of the witch comes from the fact that she is subversive — the subversion of conventional beauty through dark makeup and gothic clothing, the subversion of reality as mutable with magic instead of fixed and logical, the subversion of power as a feminine rather than masculine quality.
The Love Witch, which plays homage to many genres from Hitchcock’s horror of the 1950’s to late 70’s exploitation films like Rosemary’s Baby and Necromancy, is similarly subversive, twisting and turning away from genre conventions and tropes, which were largely created by men.
Biller’s witchcraft rituals are lengthy and sometimes geeky-sweet instead of bleary and Satanic.
Her protagonist, although clearly psychopathic, is driven by love and because of that, makes us love her too.
Her depictions of sex and romance are anxiety-producing and uncomfortable, yet at the same time, are often funny and strangely heartfelt.
She’s playing with both the dark and the light of witchcraft, the shadow and the healing, without placing them in a hierarchy of “goodness” or “rightness.”
In that way, her work feels authentic and organic, even with the deep devotion to trope and elaborate, hyper-stylized costuming and sets.
“It’s not like other horror films because it has such strong moments of romance and melodrama, which are my attempt to get at something fundamental in female psychology and fantasy,” Biller says. “Normally the witch figure is a siren who eats men alive and has no heart, but Elaine is a woman whose heart has been broken because she has been rejected by the man she loves. I think of Elaine as a modern Medea. She would rather see a man dead than to see him alive and not loving her.”
Like Medea, The Love Witch is bound to become a classic—probably a cult classic—and unlike that tragic play, is certain to cheer you up from the post-election, the-patriarchy-is-not-yet-smashed blues.
About the Author:
Riyana Rose is a lifetime devotee of the goddess and magic. In her work, she draws upon many mystical traditions, herbalism, women’s blood magic, and a deep commitment to nature and social justice. When not writing, reading, or playing with witches in the woods, she can be found in Alameda CA, where she lives with an amazing fey creature named Brighid and her life partner, brother, friends, and two very fluffy magical cats. You can find out more about her at www.plantwitch.com and www.riyanarose.com
All images: http://thelovewitch.oscilloscope.net/
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