For Sex, Sorcery and Feminism, Look No Further Than ‘The Love Witch’

Anna Biller’s latest film combines gorgeous retro aesthetics with modern commentaries on female objectification—and witchcraft.

anna biller | cinema | FILM

Combining feminism, witchcraft and a healthy appreciation of camp, The Love Witch is a beautiful and brilliant new film that combines high-brow nuance with low-brow style. Written and directed by Anna Biller, the super-stylized, tongue-in-cheek horror follows its eponymous “love witch” character—a femme fatale type of anti-hero named Elaine—as she exploits magic to seduce men.

The knowingly antiquated plot is easy to recognize from 60s and 70s films of the sexploitation genre, where women are driven crazy by being women, or “cursed” by their gender. Biller’s film uses cunning satire to give this trope the modern update it deserves, with reversals of sexual power resulting in psychotronic melodrama suffused with sly feminist observations and plenty of technicolored gore.

“Saying that a woman’s sexuality is a source of power isn’t anything new,” Biller explains. “That women aren’t owning their sexual power because they think it demeans them is a complicated social phenomenon, but it doesn’t take away from the truth of it. Elaine uses her beauty as a strategy to attain the love and respect of men, but it backfires. That’s not because her strategy is unsound, but because that’s not how patriarchy works. The men in the film will never give her the love and approval she craves, because they are very focused on marinating in their own social power.”

Elaine’s use of beauty to attain men’s love—with sorcery and spells aptly serving as metaphor for the plethora of strategies employed by women to win the respect and affection of men—backfires so intensely that it literally leads to the men’s deaths. It also backfires on Elaine herself, as her madness is symptomatic of a lifetime spent trying in vain to appeal to men’s desires. Like George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch or Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, psychological terror is produced by the tormented inner life of a woman damaged by a patriarchal world.

Elaine’s pathology and cognitive dissonance is also made clear through her humorous narration. Though she histrionically craves attention and is obsessively “addicted to love”, she is also unfailingly disappointed by the objects of her affections. “What a pussy,” she thinks of one conquest who doesn’t live up to her expectations. After he dies, she buries him in her backyard, along with a witchy jar of her urine and a bloody old tampon. “Can you believe most men have never even seen a used tampon?” she grudgingly mutters to herself in voiceover.

It’s notoriously difficult to pull off the witty pastiche and genre blending that The Love Witch does, but Biller manages to accomplish this feat with aplomb. With colorfully retro, vaseline-on-the-lens cinematography and stylization, the film itself clearly delights in its excess. At the same time, the film’s subtle use of irony, as well as the skillful use of campy dialogue and plot, are perfectly employed vehicles for Biller’s sociocultural commentary on the objectification of women. It’s a magic combination that casts a spell impossible to resist.

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