REVIEW: The Love Witch [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: November 11th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Oscilloscope
Director(s): Anna Biller
Writer(s): Anna Biller

“All it is is using your will to get what you want”

It’s an ingenious aesthetic premise: to create new cinematic pursuits showcasing women as the empowered gender—a stark contrast to most Hollywood fare—by utilizing the old Technicolor look, feel, and tone of artifice. Writer/director Anna Biller in effect embraces the synthetic properties of her medium as a mirror reflecting the synthetic properties of life itself. We all play a role in the real world, everyone becoming what he/she needs to become in order to move ahead and achieve established goals. Performance is a huge part of our survival and yet we strive to reach a point where we can shed those machinations at home with the ones we love. At the end of the day we want to be cherished for what we are underneath the act.

And yet we must wield that act in pursuit of such an ideal. Anyone who’s ever gone on a date knows this. We pretend to be our best self so we can make a good impression and secure subsequent interactions. In a perfect world each new encounter brings with it greater truth until we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with this person we now believe we know. But it isn’t a perfect system, especially when it comes to men (and women) seeking physical relationships above emotional ones. You could be gradually exposing your truth while they merely amplify what they know you want to facilitate a move to the bedroom. Suddenly social norms begin to dictate unsustainable roles: the man taking what he wants and the woman relenting.

These roles become as much an aspiration for one sex as the other. Men begin to think they are owed this fantasy of the perfect woman and women start to resign themselves to a fate where they must become it if they ever hope to keep a man. And when someone threatens to break this contract (the woman, stereotypically speaking in this scenario), she becomes the one at fault. She becomes chastised for “wanting more” or for “being too needy”. She becomes the difficult one who won’t simply give her “man” what he needs. So when feminism enters the equation to truly risk toppling man’s kingdom, man doubles-down on their control (see American government in 2017). They fear losing it. They fear having to work to earn it.

This is where we meet Biller’s The Love Witch, a young woman named Elaine (Samantha Robinson) seeking a fresh start in a new town. She’s endured the clichés and strove to uphold them only to end up alone anyway. Her husband (Stephen Wozniak‘s Jerry) wasn’t impressed by her effort in looks or housekeeping so he left, catalyzing her change physically and psychologically into the type of woman no man would ever let go. She understands the needs of a man and uses his urges to her benefit. In lieu of the “usual games” Elaine gets right to the point. You want her? You can have her. She’ll even cook you dinner first with a side of love potion to keep you infatuated for as long as she desires.

Sex becomes her tool rather than his even if each man she puts her hooks in believes he has the upper hand. This is because she sticks to the script of smiling at his boring anecdotes and complying every time he comes in close for a kiss. He wants her body and he will have it, but this result doesn’t arrive out of a woman’s place being to pleasure her man. Instead it’s a result of her demands, her permission. She uses magic to lure him in and take what she craves: physical attraction that may or may not lead to long-term love. Suddenly the roles are reversed. These men become so infatuated with her that they become needy. So much so that she begins calling them “girls.”

Much like she hyperbolically “died” when Jerry discarded her, they perish for real. Seemingly “strong” men seeking carnal pleasure as an escape become sobbing boys desperate to cling tight. So when she inevitably leaves to continue her search for Prince Charming, there’s no reason for them to keep going. Their world shatters in an instant, their bodies shutting down involuntarily or leading them to terminate life themselves. Elaine is the lothario picking whomever she desires from the crowd no matter their relationship status. She’s the one toying with them and giving them what they yearn to have in order to see whether they’re able to return the favor. And she’s as remorseless with potential conquests as men are, her narcissism blinding her from the consequences of her actions.

The occult empowers her and emasculates them into pawns they like to think women are. She feeds off their willingness to turn their head and catch a glimpse, her eyes mesmerizing each like tractor beams until they begin running their plays without knowing that’s exactly what she hopes will happen. It’s a fun twist on the witch trope that so often paints practitioners of the dark arts as monsters out for blood. Elaine is definitely a predator, but she seeks love rather than death. The fact that most men she encounters die isn’t her fault. They simply cannot handle the feelings necessary to keep her in their arms. Love cripples them, it’s illuminating force manifesting onscreen as lens flares and refracted rainbows hypnotizing them to Elaine’s every whim.

Witchcraft may be feared by some—usually victims of her beauty like Laura Waddell‘s Trish or men she ignores like Kyle Derek‘s Lyle—but it’s ultimately held as religion and therefore accepted sight-unseen. You can’t arrest someone for having a bottle of urine, used tampons, and whatever else whether it works or not. Witches are still people. They must break the law to be taken in cuffs. Whether or not Elaine has becomes the central question her fated lover (Gian Keys‘ Griff) must ask. It’s one we should all ask of the lecherous men running rampant in society whether admitted sex offenders who win the presidency or government officials passing laws so that a rapist has a say on whether the result of his crime lives or dies.

The art direction is impeccable in its anachronisms of gorgeously conceived costumes and make-up befitting of the 60s Technicolor thriller Biller looks to homage and yet existing within a contemporary time. The acting is extremely mannered, each performer intentionally acknowledging that they’re not real. This style heightens their reactions and lets Biller stylize every detail to its breaking point with a colorful, smoky chemistry lab, ornately garish satanic accouterment, and many over-sensualized sex scenes showing Elaine in control. But while it does lend an off-kilter entertainment to the whole, I can’t deny that it also helps drag everything out. I found myself overwhelmed a few times, my eyes drifting from repetition until they could be drawn back in with something new and exciting. I felt its two hours.

But that’s a small price to pay to experience something so unique in its familiarity—to see Biller masterfully overturn conventions and provide a glimpse into the real world from a perspective our culture takes pains to avoid. Robinson is stunning, perfectly cast to attract these men and believably force them to become her property. Waddell is a nice foil as the “conventional” housewife and Jeffrey Vincent Parise and Robert Seeley memorably embody Elaine’s marks. Side characters like Jared Sanford‘s Gahan and Jennifer Ingrum‘s Barbara are fun if not effectively integrated and Randy Evans as Griff’s detective partner really goes for broke where the trashy melodrama is concerned. They’re all players within Elaine’s fantasy, each bent to her urges. Never again will she be made the fool.


photography:
courtesy of Oscilloscope

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