Director: Anna Biller
Cast: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jared Sanford
Plot: Widow Elaine (Robinson) is eager to find true love, using her cunning and connections with the occult to achieve it.
I had no preconceived idea about what the Love Witch was about, other than the fact it was receiving a positive buzz from critics. Hoping to round up my 2017 cinematic experience as wholly as I could, it seemed worth a rental. Imagine my surprise when that first frame exploded into life, a time capsule from another age. Samantha Robinson, femme fatale outfit, hypnotically over-excessive make-up, driving a red car unblinkingly down a road, blatantly green-screened into the background. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I accidentally downloaded a 60s Hammer horror.
No, but that is clearly the theme that director-writer-producer-editor Anna Biller is going with. Most movies that look to a bygone era of film-making borrow certain aspects of that given decade (the narration of a 30s film noir, the stereotypes of a 80s high school comedy, a soundtrack from the 90s), yet Anna Biller lovingly transports her entire screenplay right into the 60s. Shot in 35mm film, giving the entire picture a beautifully imperfect appearance, it doesn’t so much echo the 60s, but genuinely feel like a picture from decades earlier. The cinematography is pulled right from the decade too, Biller filling her movie with erratic zooms signalling strong emotion and the kind of shots that hold an action for an age. It harkens of a simpler time, when the story did the heavy-lifting for the director. While Biller does have the aura of a director who is unquestionably in control of her work, every piece of imagery definitely planted specifically by her, the flashy tricks come second-place to the story. Samantha Robinson is a widowed wife (did she kill her ex-husband herself?), who turns to witchcraft to find true love, possessing men with her love potions, before leaving them when they do not fulfil her emotionally. It is a film that constantly surprises you. You have to admire Biller’s commitment to recreating this tone of cinema. It cannot even be described as a period piece, characters using mobile phones and the odd modern day car. This is celebrating the art of 60s cinema, not the 60s themselves. The universe of the Love Witch is bizarre too, with humans and witches co-existing, albeit with mixed results. When the lead heroine announces herself as a practitioner of the occult, we assume she dabbles in secrecy, but a few scenes later, witches are parading around in public without a care in the world. The story is fascinatingly bizarre, always moments from being too much, but drawing the audience in, despite their better judgement. Robinson’s Elaine talks with the ambition of a feminist, but her style of feminism is miles behind what anyone else would call empowering. She plans to use her body to use men as men have used women, but as each of her victims is treated to alluring strip-teases and sexual encounters handed to them on a plate, you cannot help but feel that this is the kind of feminism subtly crafted by men. At the same time, there is enough evidence to suggest Biller is being satirical. Robinson is definitely not a role model, by any means, discounting any feminist spiel that comes out of her mouth, and the male leader of the witch coven might lecture his disciples that women enchanting men with all-but naked dancing is a strong source of empowerment, but his wandering eyes contradict his preaching.
Perhaps, when the impression of the 60s film-making dies down, you are left with an interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable experience. With the greatest respect, there is a reason cinema evolves. The actors here aren’t necessarily bad performers, the emotional flashes behind the eyes suggesting depth not afforded in the script, but the dialogue and acting is kept purposefully stoic by Biller. Yes, it is very 60s, but there are moments when a shoddy line pulls you right out of the immersion. There are certain scenes (two cops arguing, a near-miss when it comes to witch-burning), that feels restrained emotionally, because of the style. Supporting stars in the background of the story feel like they aren’t even trying. The writing also holds back any characters from being necessarily likeable. It is understandable that Elaine turns out to be less than savoury, but it would be nice if there was a protagonist that could come up against her. The cop after her that becomes her primary source of affection is pulled right from a sexist Noir B-Movie. Again, poor acting stops Gian Keys from even getting a chance to claw out from under this stereotype role. You continue with the story out of a minor curiosity to see where Elaine’s obsession takes her, but you aren’t necessarily rooting for any of the characters. Sometimes, this purposefully broad strokes come across as amusing. Early scenes might have wooden acting, but it’s cute: a throwback to the decade Biller clearly cherishes. However, when a film clocks in at two hours, it needs more to keep us hooked in. There are lines so cringe-worthy that you feel Biller has gone too far into 60s camp. “I am your ultimate fantasy!” screams Robinson, during sex. “So I was a bad girl,” she later purrs to Gian Keys detective. “Do I need to be punished?” This coupled with the almost constant nudity almost puts The Love Witch in the category of, not 60s homage, but 60s B-Movie homage. Biller is almost a director’s cut away from being a porn parody, certain conversations delivered so woodenly, you assume it is the mandatory chat, before clothes start coming off. The Love Witch is spared for the fact that each flat beat is a purposeful move by director Biller and everything here is easily a genuine labour of love. The Love Witch feels like the film she wanted to make. But while its style is interesting, and the talent needed to pull it off obviously very high, the end result is something that only vaguely appeals.
Final Verdict: Initially an intriguing return to 60s cinema, but eventually the camp becomes too much. A wonderful production, yes, but not entirely gripping.