Near the beginning of the impish fantasy The Love Witch is a scene so artfully staged for ridiculousness that it jiggers the movie into a kind of alternative universe. Elaine, the enigmatic title character (Samantha Robinson), has just moved to Eureka, California, when she’s invited by an acquaintance, an interior designer named Trish (Laura Waddell), for afternoon refreshments at the Victorian Tea Room.
The place is a riot of frou-frou décor, overwhelmingly frilly and pink, and the exclusively female customers all seem to have gotten their outfits at a Japanese “Lolita” convention. It’s a sea of exaggerated antique femininity. As they sip tea and nibble pastries, the two women eagerly compare notes. Although still hung up on her ex-boyfriend, Elaine is confident she can find another guy immediately in a new town, because men are so easy to please. “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” responds Trish, who has just finished bragging about her wonderful husband. Elaine only smiles knowingly. We sense trouble brewing.
From her red Mustang convertible to her “occult” home furnishings to her homemade love potions, the glamorous Wiccan adherent Elaine is the creation of filmmaker Anna Biller — whose whimsical, sexually-charged scenarios for Viva, A Visit from the Incubus, and now The Love Witch establish her in a narrative film category that defies convenient description. On her website, Biller describes her oeuvre in feminist terms as an exploration of female roles in society, with a strong minor in “visual pleasure.”
Indeed The Love Witch — shot on 35mm with Sixties-Seventies throwback lighting and camera set-ups, to go along with the retro sexpot wardrobe — has less in common with traditionally dour remedial feminist films than it does with the bygone let-it-all-hang-out sexploitationers of Stephanie Rothman (The Student Nurses) and Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet). The violent parts hark back to Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In dialogue, characters allude to The Stepford Wives. The hyper-gaudy production values break the proscenium arch again and again. M. David Mullen’s cinematography alone is reason enough in itself to drop whatever you’re doing to run out and see this.
Robinson’s Elaine dwells in a niche between stereotypical male fantasy and Biller’s aspirational evolved-female typecasting. If we squint our eyes she looks remarkably like Jaclyn Smith from Charlie’s Angels, but she plays rougher. As Elaine wends her way through Eureka’s male population looking for just the right mate, praying to the goddess for a man (and leaving a trail of corpses), her adventures take on a cotton-candy-symbolic flavor. But Biller herself — writer, producer, director, designer of the costumes and sets, and composer of four pieces of music for the movie — is harder to pin down. Does she take Elaine’s alt-spiritual and proto-feminist yearnings seriously, or is it all an exercise in camp? Or both? The screenplay propels us in multiple different directions at the same time, and the resulting friction may be silly, but it’s never boring.
Wendy’s herbal shop. The new-age burlesque club. The frisky officers down at the police station. Elaine’s kitchen sorcery lab, where she casts her love spells. Biller hits us with one flamboyant set piece after another, culminating in the Renaissance Faire scene, a hysterically digressive interlude that in any other feature-length narrative released in November would have been left on the cutting-room floor. Can we really help it if Biller’s all-out celebration of/assault on gender roles and fertility rites reminds us of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal? Or that despite contributing to a seemingly padded-out two-hour running time, the medieval-style clowning somehow crystallizes every argument Biller is trying to make about fetishism, archetypes, and the fear of female sexuality? The “mythic or moronic” dichotomy doesn’t enter into it. Take a deep breath and exhale. The Love Witch is ready to blow your mind.