Within the past few years it has become undeniable that witches and witchcraft are in fashion, be it in film, television or culture at large (full disclosure: this author has even made a short that falls in the ‘witchsploitation’ sub-genre). My usual response to the current witch craze is that they were never out of fashion but, rather, one defining characteristic of any real witch is discretion. Regardless, 2016 has brought us the theatrical release of two well-hyped indie films on the subject matter, Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. A comparison of the two is almost pointless—the former being about drab, 17th century, colonial New England folklore, the latter about 1960’s and 70’s Californian new age magick. Brief research into witchcraft through the ages uncovers the early 20th century writing of Margaret Murray, which effectively skewed perceptions of what witchcraft means in the modern world, for better or worse. For now, let’s just try to focus on Biller’s new film and what it delivers, regardless of the director’s intention.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a seductive young woman, arrives in a small town and begins using her body and magical powers to make men fall in love with her. Previous to the start of the film, she was rejected by her husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak), which motivated her to study witchcraft and retaliate by poisoning him. She proceeds to seduce a few men who become so desperate for her that they commit suicide or keel over from heart attacks. Near the start of the movie, in conversation with her neighbor, Trish (Laura Waddell), Elaine explains her pathological motivation to give men everything they want in order to receive love in return; however, the love potions she hands out to men, and her ‘Stepford wife’ attitude, turn them into emotional wrecks. This set up — of a submissive woman controlling men in order to feel secure and “loved” — is so compelling when the viewer anticipates Elaine’s catharsis of getting over her fantastic view of bourgeois security. Unfortunately, she continues to adhere to an almost sociopathic desire for normalcy.
Everything about The Love Witch, from production to subject matter, made it seem like a film that I would go crazy for. The movie is more like a joke with no punch line. At a time when there are so many ripe opportunities to equate witchcraft and sex magick to kinky or queer themes, Biller’s film decides to focus on the hang ups of a rejected woman who can’t come to terms with the illusory nature of love, lust and desire. The result is somewhat boring. At least it is sex positive. It is almost as if Biller’s film is stuck in the era of 1970’s second wave feminism, when in actuality her film is being viewed during the present state of third wave or intersectional feminism.
At best, The Love Witch brings immense visual pleasure to viewers. While watching it, I felt like a stray cat attracted to a shiny object. Biller’s decision to shoot it on 35mm is a treat, especially considering the stark use of color throughout. It is like a large piece of technicolor candy that my eyes want to devour. In addition, lead actress Samantha Robinson is absolutely beautiful (almost too beautiful), whether dressed in a variety of stylish wardrobe choices, or stripped down to a g-string. But does Biller’s use of celluloid, bright color, and Robinson’s body, ultimately indicate themes of progress for women and witches? I don’t believe so, mainly because of the above-mentioned observation that the character of Elaine does not change throughout the entire picture. What is the point of belittling men’s truly existential emotional fragility if the woman protagonist starts and ends as being just as shallow, or worse than that, sociopathic? Elaine is in a perpetual state of chasing her own tail, searching for a type of love that does not exist. She attracts lust in the male characters, believing that love is inherently connected. Perhaps The Love Witch can be seen as a cautionary tale about the illusions that physical pleasure and emotional security are synonymous. Usually they are not.
Aside from direct remakes of old films, there has been another trend of late (or perhaps a constant one) to create cinema that is an homage, pastiche, or ‘nod to’ older generations of cinema. The primary reason why this type of cinema would work is if the new films say something about contemporary society that was lacking in the originals. This has the potential to simultaneously show the flaws in the ideology of past eras, indicating the measures of progress or parallels that have happened since then. The most popular example of this is Quentin Tarantino, who appears to have a fascination with blaxploitation cinema more than black people. Guy Maddin is probably the most successful, however, in creating innovative, nostalgic worlds. A few other examples of the retro trend are the giallo-centric Belgian filmmakers Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, British Euro-sleaze appropriator Peter Strickland, and the brilliant Canadian jokers known as Astron-6. These filmmakers arguably succeed or fail in creating progressive cinema based on old aesthetics, and Anna Biller can join the club. The greatest worth of The Love Witch is the disagreement over progress it generates, and the fact that this writer/director/ producer/editor/costume designer has at least brought issues regarding femininity and normative relationships to light. That being said, the current climate of movies, artwork and criticism about gender appear to be further ahead of Biller’s ruminations.