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The Love Witch

Year: 2016
Production Co: Anna Biller Productions
Director: Anna Biller
Producer: Anna Biller
Writer: Anna Biller
Cast: Samantha Robinson

I watched this because I was interested enough in the feminist messages writer/director Anna Biller previous film (Viva) contained, especially after reading a few blog posts of hers and appreciating how passionate and informed she is about feminism and its history in film, particularly the exploitation genres.

Feminist themes are present in The Love Witch too, but as with Viva, it's a little bit of a quagmire to get there. Viva leaned right into the kitsch of the period depicted in the staging and design as well as the script and performances, and while this doesn't do so quite as much (though it still looks very much like camp 60s horror), I'm a bit more convinced Biller is a smarter feminist than she is a talented filmmaker.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a modern witch who moves to an opulent Victorian mansion in California, intending to start a new life after her former husband's apparent murder, which we see in snippets of flashback accompanied by Elaine's voiceover making us suspect she's killed him.

As she installs herself in her new surroundings, painting, casting spells and getting about in 60s chic sultry housewife garb, Elaine launches her new mission – to have a man fall so head over heels in love with her (helped along by various potions and spells) that he virtually loses his mind over it.

Starting with a professor she meets in a park after coaxing him away from the poor woman he's talking to, onto the husband of the friend who's helped her find her new house and ending with the police officer investigating the strange deaths it turns out Elaine's connected to, she gets what she wishes for a little too much.

In each case, Elaine seduces her lover and loves him literally to death, making him initially so devoted to her and then immediately backing off, leaving him so despondent or sick it costs his his life. It's never really clear whether Elaine has a pathology where she craves loves but rejects it when she gets it or whether she never really loves the poor saps she seduces, she just wants to destroy them.

The title perfectly conveys the themes, referencing centuries of culture where (patriarchal) society generally fears the inexplicable and uncontrollable power women have over men. It's also about power imbalances in love, how sex and the desire for it muddies the waters of that balance and how men are (or should be) afraid of women to the same degree they want them.

It's set in the modern day, but Biller again aims for an aesthetic from the sexploitation era (and hits it perfectly), and just like in Viva, the mise en scene of the film is picture perfect in every location and scene. It's just that the story isn't as interesting as it should be.

It actually made me think of Tarantino, how he's always referencing the aesthetics of other moviemaking eras and styles, and if he wasn't so talented with casting and dialogue his movies might be like Biller's – worthy, confidently made and gorgeous but not very gripping.

She hasn't made a film in a long time, but I think I'll concentrate more on her essays from now on.

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