Every year-end Top Ten list features a mix of popular releases and lesser-known stand-outs that made a significant impression on theater-goers and critics alike. This isn’t an editorial decision to provide equal coverage; rather, films that grace Top Ten lists are noteworthy to the respective list creator. One such film is available now on disc and digital, writer/director Anna Biller’s 2016 release The Love Witch, a retro-stylized psychological thriller that takes the melodrama and Technicolor palette of the 60’s and plants it in the modern world. Though I disagree that The Love Witch is a “must-watch” picture, Biller’s consistent subversion of audience expectation creates an experience worth discussing.
Spurned by love, Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) leaves San Francisco for life in a small town with her friend Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum). Hoping to start anew, Elaine makes a contact at a local apothecary to sell her homemade wares, spends time painting elaborate fantasy-focused artwork, and makes love potions. Elaine is a woman driven by in the search for lasting love, viewing herself as a delicate damsel in need of a prince to fulfill, who will in turn fulfill her. This need to mate belies her true nature: a succubus caught in an endless cycle of love and murder.
At first glance, The Love Witch is a spot-on homage to the sex siren films of the 60s. The colors pop in Technicolor palettes, the music’s pure orchestral psychedelia, and the wooden acting’s just shy of B-movie quality. If not for the hints of modernity through cell phones and modern cars (mostly in the background), every scene hails the return of 60s cinematic sensibilities. Biller’s eye for detail truly captures the sights, sounds, and feel of the period, providing even the most drug-free audience members a nostalgic head-trip to the 60s. This commendable recreation of the period provides a rich foundation for the world of The Love Witch to exist within.
As the story opens, Elaine’s driving along a shoreline highway, cigarette in her mouth, wind tussling her hair, and only her narration to set the stage for the audience. Her voice is soft, her dress (like her car) a vibrant red, and her make-up immaculate. This calculated approach to her appearance and vocal delivery is developed from her belief that a woman’s roll is to provide for men in every way that they need. This belief system – which is fine for some – seems exceptionally out of place when the audience considers the appearance of cell phones and modern cars, as well as the cinematography and costume design indicative of the period of sexual revolution. All of these are in direct contrast to Elaine’s view, making her appear stuck in time while conversely trying to fit in. It’s a dramatic juxtaposition within her character that creates the bulk of her conflict.
For example, the first available man she meets, a teacher named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), she seduces through the application of drugs, a steak dinner, and performance of a burlesque-style dance. All of this is part of an aggressive courtship process in line with her “women must provide” belief system. However, once in the act of love-making, she subverts to a passive, prone position. Once consummated, she immediately leaves Wayne to sleep alone. Shortly after coitus, Wayne immediately takes ill and she proceeds to mentally degrade him, all while taking her time getting to his bedside. When he doesn’t survive, Elaine responds as though an easily replaceable bauble had broken. This sudden emotional detachment manifests as a reaction to a failure in her belief system. Initially, Elaine seems like a heartless monster, focused solely on the hunt for a partner, no matter what lives are lost in the process, until its reasons are made bare. Elaine, we discover, was not always beautiful, nor was she treated well by her early partners. The inability to maintain a desirable personal appearance, a well-kept house, and to tend to the sexual needs of a partner, resulted in various verbal abuses. In trying to get away from this, she joined a coven that taught her the ways of magic, introducing to her tools of self-empowerment to bring her balance and independence.
Which brings us to the central conceit of subverting expectations in form of Elaine as a witch. Setting up her character, the central protagonist, is brilliant. Frequently seen as malevolent, this choice keys-up the audience to consider Elaine untrustworthy. It forces the audience to question what she says and judge every movement. However, the real question Biller seems to be asking is “why should we feel this way?” As the audience, we have no knowledge of who Elaine is, what she wants, or where she’s going, and yet we already feel like we can’t trust her. Audiences should be able to trust their protagonist, yet Biller makes a point to establish a level of unease. At one point in the film, a member of Elaine’s coven even argues that witches of the past were only burned because men felt ashamed for feeling attracted to women other than their wives. That it was easier to place responsibility onto women than to keep it for themselves. The intent of this statement is to stand as a declaration that the coven espouses personal responsibility in their quest for cultural acceptance, which stands in stark contrast to Elaine’s mission for partnership. She sees every male as a potential partner, seeing no danger in seducing any man – married or single – until the moment they fail to live up to her lofty expectations.
Much to her credit, Biller took the expected conventions of that period and flipped them to craft a slow, melancholy love story about a woman in search of her soul mate. For, in the end, Elaine is a tragic figure born out of the games society tells her she must play. She has to be sexy, sultry, and ever available. She’s meant to be soft, yet tough. Masterful in the kitchen and the bedroom, but god forbid she have a bad day or her menstrual cycle begins, for then she’s no longer perfect. Then Elaine no longer fits the mold society places her into. She’s no longer the sex puppet, the sultry siren, the perfect partner, but a real woman with needs and wants. However, Elaine’s perception of love is warped from her trauma that, to her, lust is love. So when she attempts t take control of her sexual identity as a means of shattering the chains of social expectations, she’s merely binding herself with different lock. Tragically, Elaine is doomed to live alone, in constant hunger for the love she’s come to believe she deserves. This is what make The Love Witch so compelling. Its horror is not in the narrative, but in the analysis of character of Elaine as both victim and culprit.
Now out on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.