THE LOVE WITCH
(2017, Anna Biller)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
This! This is why female filmmakers are so important. This is why stories of women need to be told. Because when the shot of our delightfully devilish protagonist, Elaine (embodied to perfection by Samantha Robinson) graces the screen, cigarette in hand, blue eyeshadow lavishly applied, driving a convertible on her way to a new life, I could actually hear every woman in that screening room smile. The fabulous gay inside of me was also giddy with excitement. She - to use a bad pun - cast her spell on me.
Melissa Silverstein from Indiewire writes that the female gaze "is not about pleasure or even power; it is about presence." But the female gaze in THE LOVE WITCH captures a woman's presence and her power and her pleasure. Elaine is a witch who makes love potions and casts spells on men so they fall in love with her. Sometimes they fall too madly in love which drives to madness and death. Her spellcasting is shown cinematically through her gaze. It cuts to a shot of her eyes, framed in extreme close-up. The men she directs her gaze to is momentarily transfixed, and so is the audience watching. In this act of sorcery, her femininity is blasted out in all directions, with power, with pleasure, and with presence. She gets what she wants when she wants it and it's also saying: come look at me and what I can do.
The aesthetic pleasure of the film is indebted to Anna Biller’s sheer commitment to her vision. She not only wrote and directed the movie but edited and designed the costumes and sets herself - most of the time by hand. It’s shot in gauzy 35mm film lending it an air of nostalgia but Biller embraces an anachronistic approach by not explicitly stating or showing the time period. The costuming and interiors hark back to days gone by but then you get the jolt of a smartphone or a modern car passing in the background.
This anachronism is a growing trend in cinema - a retro-contemporary fusion that mirrors our culture today: fashions steeped in historical references, a reawakening of nostalgic pop culture properties and the fetishisation of the analogue. It exists in contemporary cinema in the horror film IT FOLLOWS where an 80's atmosphere co-mingles with the presence of an e-reader. Or in Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY where 90's music and dress is prevalent in a film that is set over a decade later. Or a more recent example in LA LA LAND, a movie that borrows from older (and better) films so much so that it seems like it was set in that era until a Prius or an iPhone pop up.
This anachronism is helpful in articulating the notion that in this very moment, politically speaking, we are heading back to the past, and especially when it comes to hot issues like women’s rights and feminism. What I mean by that is, that this movie, when it parodies misogynistic intent, doesn’t actually make fun of attitudes long passed but, sadly, is still painfully relevant today.
When it comes to certain issues, it feels like we're stuck in a political carousel, going round and round forever and ever. It feels like we're going somewhere only to end back in the same situation. From race relations to climate change, these are social issues we can't seem to find a common ground to stand on. But the most frustrating of all is how backward society is when it comes to the treatment of women.
So when Elaine undergoes a cliched ritual of pleasing her man - cooking a steak dinner, offering her body for his pleasure and consoling his ego and desires - it doesn’t feel dated. It feels like this kind of thinking still remains in the minds of men and some women living today. We are living an era of anachronism, a sociopolitical topsy-turvy where slogans like Make America Great Again are just a longing for a time when women knew their place and people behaved in respect to the patriarchy. “The good old days” for a certain kind of person, to the exclusion of others. But what I loved most about this movie is how it produced humour out of our sad reality and how in turn, its parody became cathartic. One can only laugh at the ridiculousness.
THE LOVE WITCH makes its critique entertaining by its use of camp. When Elaine goes out to lunch with another woman, it cuts to a fabulously decorated tea room splashed with shades of pink everywhere. Elaine’s costume even matches the flamboyant interior. The cut to this scene elicits laughter from our audience because it is so over-the-top. This tea room is women’s only and this is a particularly feminine space both in concept and aesthetic. The feminine is exaggerated, and by extension, becomes a celebration of it. When a male character walks into this space, it’s as if someone shook you awake from a pleasant daydream.
The plot of the film is straightforward. It’s only incidental to the director’s vision but it was smart of Biller to position her ideas of feminism and embed them within a story of a witch. Witches have traditionally been a symbol for men’s fears about women, from their sexuality and their inherent power as women. Elaine says: "They teach that a ‘normal’ human being is a hyper-rationalist, stoic male, and that a woman’s intuitions and emotions are illnesses that need to be cured.” Sorcery as a representation of feminine intuition and emotions - seen to be an unruly, misunderstood or under-appreciated kind of power. This threatens the rationalist and stoic patriarchy and so when Elaine reclaims and wields this power, it eventually leads to a witch-hunt.
Image courtesy of Oscilloscope