I went into The Love Witch with little expectation other than this was going to be a tongue-in-cheek horror/comedy throwback to the (thankfully?) bygone era of sexploitation films, and for all intents and purposes, its veneer is exactly that. But it’s actually not. At all.
On the contrary, Anna Biller’s 2016 film is a modern feminist fantasy that reverses the roles of misogyny in film, and I am almost embarrassed to say that it made me self-reflect more than I could ever have imagined a film that plays like The Love Witch could.
The story follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young and mesmerisingly beautiful white witch who wants nothing more than to be loved. After her misogynist husband, Jerry leaves her for another woman (and he mysteriously ends up dead), she flees to California to stay at her Wicca mentor, Barbara’s house.
The house is a fabulously purple gothic structure that could, from the outside, have been taken straight from The Munsters. But inside it has been decorated to Barbara’s tastes by Interior Designer, Trish (Laura Waddell). It is a glorious psychedelic palace, less like Munsters more like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie. Shot on 35mm camera, the film looks exactly like it was made in the ’60s. It’s drenched in Technicolor, with touches of Italian horror, Hammer and late Hitchcock everywhere. The clothing, the detail of every trinket, painting, every item of furniture is exquisitely retro perfect — it must have taken Biller years to collect all these items. In fact, I know it did. The film took seven-and-a-half years to complete, and Biller completed pretty much every task herself. She wrote, directed and edited, storyboarded every shot and worked closely with her cinematographer, M. David Mullen, an expert in reproducing classical camera styles.
I assumed in the beginning that the story was set in the ’60s, that was until I saw modern-day vehicles (except for Elaine’s classic sports car which threw me off the scent at first) and people using cell phones. Yet it’s not just Elaine that looks like a cross between Diana Rigg and Barbara Eden, no, everyone is styled this way. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was about this. It’s a phenomenon barely seen on screen since Lynch & Frost sprinkled the ’50s all over Twin Peaks, except maybe in Legion (set in present-day) where all the female characters (and Oliver) could have been plucked straight out of A Clockwork Orange.
Elaine makes herself right at home and goes for a Victorian-style afternoon tea with Trish. It’s here that we really start to see Samantha Robinson’s amazing ability to switch her enchanting wide-eyed expression to that of resting bitch face — in less than a second. I find this captivating — she really was the perfect choice for the leading lady. Her face suits the ’60s style of makeup, in fact, she manages to pull off wearing the most garish colours of eyeshadow and still look totally bewitching. Yes, I think it’s fair to say I have fallen under her spell. And yes, I am going to use every single witchy pun I can in this review.
Elaine and Trish chat about their love lives. Trish is married — happily — to Richard (Robert Seeley). They have a modern relationship, with mutual respect and equality. Elaine doesn’t believe this is the way to keep a man interested. She believes that totally giving a man whatever he wants—through sex and servitude—is the way to win his heart. So that’s exactly what she sets out to do after preparing a concoction and performing a ritual to find the perfect man.
You’re probably thinking, ‘So how exactly is this a feminist film?’ it really is, but you have to get to the end to see it.
Elaine first claps eyes on victim number 1 while eating a sandwich on a bench. Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) a Literature professor at the local college, only has to glance in her direction and he’s spellbound. Within minutes he’s like a devoted lapdog and agrees without hesitation to take her to his cabin in the countryside for a roll in the hay.
At the cabin, Elaine doses Wayne with a hallucinogenic potion and then seduces him in a fabulously camp and kaleidoscopic sequence. The acting is deliberately wooden and hammed up which just makes it more outrageously entertaining. ‘Poor’ Wayne didn’t stand a chance; Elaine bedazzles him with her rainbow lined coat — a technique I’ve never quite seen before when it comes to the art of luring men into bed. Must try that someday…
It doesn’t quite go according to Elaine’s plan though. Wayne falls madly in love with her of course, but it just turns him into a needy, blabbering, mess. This is not the man of her dreams. She can’t stand his incessant calling for her all night and ignores his pleas for her to soothe him. “What a pussy,” she thinks, listening to Wayne cry out for her. The words hit like a stab to the heart. By the morning he is dead.
Upon this discovery, Elaine makes up a witch bottle of her own urine and a used tampon and buries it in the garden along with Wayne’s body, and leaves her rainbow coat for him as a parting gift (which is just amazing). Little does Elaine know that Wayne’s friend has already alerted the police to his ‘kidnapping’. Shortly after Elaine returns to her lodgings, the police find Wayne’s body.
“Tampons aren’t gross. Women bleed and that’s a beautiful thing. Do you know that most men have never even seen a used tampon?” — Elaine’s thoughts reveal a different woman to the one we see on the surface.
Elaine is still on the hunt for the perfect man, and after Trish goes out of town on business she sets her gaze on her husband. So this witch is no feminist anti-hero either. She thinks nothing of seducing her friend’s husband. Like Wayne, Richard is stupefied with lust and love for Elaine almost immediately, putting her off him completely, resulting in her breaking off the romance and leaving him emotionally crippled. So much so in fact that he takes his own life. Elaine doesn’t give two hoots, he’s just another notch under the not-quite-so-white-witches belt.
So while she twists herself to fit a certain feminine ideal, she despises men she doesn’t see as properly masculine. If she has to play the trophy wife, he has to play the trophy husband. Equality right?
Elaine wants a manly man, someone who will be fascinated by her womanly charms but remain the strong, silent type, pay no attention to her needs, and generally treat her as a possession. But Elaine’s self-objectification does not bring her the happiness she craves. Although she satisfies these men’s primal urges for sex, when they demand an emotional bond with her (as she once did from her husband) she is disappointed. It’s clear, of course, that “love” is not what she really what she’s looking for — she’s more interested in power, exploitation and revenge.
But maybe there is someone who could fit the bill of her perfect mate? A super macho, bachelor playboy Detective of course! The one who is investigating her for murder? Even better. It doesn’t take Elaine long to ensnare him. You know I’m not entirely sure she requires any sex magic to get what she wants, but this is Elaine’s fantasy, and her fantasy is to be every man’s fantasy.
Though at first glance we might want to be Elaine — or be with Elaine — we’re aware that she’s got happiness all wrong. The irony is, she’s so perfect that she’s inhuman, an object, a sex doll with no needs. Sure, a hunk like Detective Griff (Gian Keys) might be willing to spend a sunshine-drenched afternoon riding horses with her in matching khakis, but he’s infatuated with a cartoon, not a wife.
“The big question is what would happen if men loved women as strongly as women want them to; the way women crave to be loved by men. Men are known for being much less emotional than women, but, in my experience, they’re much more emotional. And that’s why they won’t, or can’t, open that gate – it would destroy them. And that’s what kills all the men in my movie – having to experience their own feelings.”
Director Anna Biller interviewed for The Guardian, 2nd March 2017
This depiction is of course totally over the top, but in reality what makes a woman act against her own self-interest like this? One argument is that too many women are trained to say what men want to hear. As The Love Witch swoons on, we learn that Elaine was literally brainwashed by a guru (Jared Sanford), who puts his hands and lips wherever he wants. He’s convinced Elaine, and other women, that his fantasy is theirs. Without getting too political here, it reminded me of the women who wholeheartedly support Donald Trump. It’s something I can’t quite get my head around — why would any woman want to be exploited by men? This is way different to a sexually submissive kink, this is agreeing that you, your feelings, your rights, are less important than a mans.
So how is self-deprecating Elaine the star of a feminist movie? Mostly because everything she says she wants is a lie. She doesn’t want the fairytale Prince to come and whisk her off her feet. She already had that with the misogynistic husband who mocked her cooking skills and cheated on her with another woman — so she took total control and did away with him. Her father was equally awful to her; body-shaming her and making her feel inadequate throughout her youth. In playing the “ultimate fantasy” for each of her prey, she reveals their true natures. Wayne didn’t consider getting to know her at all before having sex with her, he took what was on the plate without hesitation. Richard didn’t take much convincing to cheat on his wife. She turns the power she gives them over her into her own by reversing their roles.
Despite his infatuation, Detective Griff tries to win the power back and not allow Elaine to get away with murder. He cruelly tells her he doesn’t love her and tries to belittle her charms, to which Elaine replies:
“How can you stand there and boast about being immune to love? Why does the genuine love of a woman scare you so much? You think that your way is a superior way to live? I know a lot of women who feel the way that I do. Only men make us work so hard for your love. If you would just love us for ourselves, but you won’t. My ex-husband was just like you. He used to punish me by withholding his love from me. All my life I’ve been tossed in the garbage except when men wanted to use my body. So, I decided to find my own power. And I found that power through witchcraft. That means that I take what I need from men and not the other way around.”
The final scenes of the film are perhaps the most telling. As the locals in the bar overhear Griff telling Elaine that he’s arresting her for the murder of Wayne, they turn on her, shouting, “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”. The men circle her, tackle her to the ground and it’s clear their intention is to gang rape her. These men have no idea how to handle a woman with such power, the only thing they know to do is to violate her and win it back. However, her Prince does come — Griff rescues her from the pack of animalistic men and takes her home.
So they get their happy ending? Well no. Back at Elaine’s pad, Griff sits despondently as she tends to his wounds from the bar brawl, the “poor, poor baby”. He tosses her goblet of potion away and just stares into her eyes. This is what she wanted — a man with no care for her needs or emotion towards her. He lays on the bed, presumably expecting her to pleasure him and she realises that she’d had all she’d ever really wanted from all her previous lovers — devotion. With that, she takes a dagger and stabs Griff in the heart several times. Her first truly intended kill. With him dead, her fantasy of him — the perfect, devoted husband — lives on but only in her head. The only place he could ever really be found.
So quite a sad ending really in what was a gloriously beautiful, and preposterously silly film — packaged like Christmas present from John Waters, and with as much hidden depth. I absolutely adored it. It made me want to go and play dress up, get glammed up and pretend to be something I’m not — maybe a love witch or a princess, or even “the ultimate fantasy”, and in these moments of self-reflection, I realised I have been doing this all my life, not for the love of a man, but for myself.