Film Review: THE LOVE WITCH (written and directed by Anna Biller)

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by Paul Birchall on October 4, 2016

in Film


Men are definitely the outsiders in director and writer Anna Biller’s engrossing and increasingly strange film, a movie which frankly defies easy description; the genre could very well be designated as “feminist satire.”

Set in the 1970s, and utilizing period costumes and sets, along with the wonderfully over-saturated colorful Technicolor hues of a Sirkian melodrama, The Love Witch ostensibly apes the style of cheesy exploitation movies, with calculatedly stiff acting and a sensibility that screams the swinging acid era of Charles Manson. However, there is more afoot here: Similar to the way ingredients are brewed in magic potions, concepts of feminist rage, empowerment, and male control simmer in the broth. The point of view is steadfastly female-oriented: The men are seen as chattel or objects to be manipulated for a woman’s ends and pleasures.

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Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a witch, specializing in romantic and sexual magic. No, really, she’s all about spells and potions, pentagrams, and filling bottles with herbs, flowers, and her urine to crate safety charms. Her dream is to find true love—but she’s willing to test the waters a bit, using her magic to seduce men, enchant them into adoring her, and break their hearts when they don’t meet her standard.

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After feeding her husband an enchanted potion that kills him, Elaine moves from San Francisco to a small Northern California town, known for its community of wiccan-loving white witches. She quickly rents a room in a picturesque Victorian that she shares with a couple of other witches who work as strippers at the local strip club. Elaine’s brief affair with a local college professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), which ends with him dying from a broken heart due to her magical spells, brings her to the attention of a handsome, hyper-masculine police detective (Gian Keys), who starts investigating her suspicious behavior. Elaine, meanwhile, fastens on him as her next lover—uh, victim.

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At first, the artful film seems merely exploitative, particularly in terms of the intentionally flat line readings and clunky script, which, if the material had been anything other than this edgy, would come across as campy. However, Biller’s intriguingly disturbing philosophy runs through themes of unease and obsession, reading like today’s world, executed atop a glorious canvas of reds and greens and yellows.

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The pacing is intentionally languorous, pocked with shots of characters watching and considering each other. It’s particularly fascinating to watch the inscrutable Robinson as she contemplates her victims and her antagonists. When she’s in love, her face glows—but is it with affection or with selfish madness? As the story unfolds, it’s clear she’s one sexy lady, yet it’s the dangerous sexiness of a demon, who destroys her victims immediately after she loses interest in them.

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It’s a portrait of a femme fatale, but Biller cunningly depicts the tale from the powerful woman’s point of view for a change, not so much the man. As such, the crazy story is a parable about woman’s strength, filtered through femininity, rather than aping male behavior. Biller further amps up the sexism debate by casting incredibly lovely actresses as all the female characters while the men actors are all character actors of varying oddness of expression and intensity.

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The mix of pagan and Satanic ceremonies, which often feel pulled right out of the writings of Dennis Wheatley, are gorgeous to watch—and just as sinister as you’d wish. A strangely compelling and rather creepy dark comedy that boasts a seriously unusual take on female sexuality and desire.

photos courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Love Witch
Oscilloscope Laboratories
in English | 2016 | color | 120 mins.
now showing in select festivals worldwide
for screenings, visit Love Witch Screenings
opens in various markets on November 11, 2016

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