Review: The Love Witch

Director: Anna Biller

Stars: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is young, beautiful and recently single following the collapse of her marriage under tragic circumstances. She is also a witch, and the film opens with her starting afresh in a new town, set up in a gorgeous gothic apartment building that’s already kitted out for her particular needs. Elaine aspires to a life shaped by the company of a man and grades her personal success against her ability to capture and keep a mate. Above all else she craves love, and she uses spells to bolster her allure. But the course of love rarely runs smoothly and, despite her wiccan ways, Elaine  continues to find men tricky to understand.

The mismatch of goals and ideals between the two genders is one of the main preoccupations of Anna Biller’s sumptuous cinematic gift, a film with a wickedly raised eyebrow that borrows details from the history of cinema. It’s as though Biller has her own cauldron and has taken all of her favourite cinematic mannerisms from eras past and stirred an intoxicating brew. Her involvement in the aesthetic here is meticulous. The sets were designed by Biller. She also created the astonishing costumes. If there’s a labour of love to behold in the cinema this year, it is hers. The Love Witch slavishly recreates an aesthetic rarely seen since the late 60’s and early 70’s. It’s a feast for the eyes that puts the work of other similarly minded directors to shame.

But The Love Witch isn’t an ironic parody piece (although it can be enjoyed on a surface level as such; there are plenty of laughs to be had), nor is it even a period piece. Despite the exacting look, the setting is present day. Biller goes out of her way to remind us of this, with anachronistic cars, the appearance of cell phones etc. The intent is not to position the story in the past, but to covet a bygone aesthetic in the present. It’s a contemporary story. The extravagant presentation only adds a richness to the experience, and a fairytale like quality that is entirely on message.

This extends beyond costumes and sets. The pace of the editing is a hair slower than modern cinema is inclined toward, and the acting styles are notably modeled on sensibilities long since passed. The look of The Love Witch and its fanciful quasi-mysticism and evocation of folk-horror reaffirms the 60’s/70’s vibe, but the mannerisms and dialogue exchanges just as frequently nod to 40’s melodrama.

All of this might easily have swirled into a confusing cocktail or invited a sort of nostalgic nausea as the different sensibilities swirl, but the alchemy almost always pays off. There’s an assumed silliness to The Love Witch which the film does joyfully play on, allowing the audience to relax or let their guard down, but underneath this Biller is talking to us seriously about the sadness of how male and female values and aspirations butt up against one another and make for strange and conflicting bedfellows. The seeds of Elaine’s dissatisfaction with the love she’s experienced so far are suggested, but her very dissatisfaction speaks of society’s pressures to obtain a level of romantic love beyond practical reason. Her aspiration is a fairytale, one that proves impossible to actualise.

Hats off to Robinson who is absolutely stellar in the lead, commanding our attention from beginning to end with a complex weave of single minded confidence and tragic naivety. Biller’s film is a feminist take on old tropes – one that gleefully pokes holes in masculine stereotypes – but she is also keen to celebrate a woman’s sexuality. The Love Witch is a film of indulgences (in a positive sense), and many of those indulgences speak to female fantasies, keying in to ideals of glamour learned from films and magazines. Elaine is a very glamorous person, she takes pride in it and Biller relishes in it. She asks us to relish in it too. Even if the subtext passes you by and you experience The Love Witch as all surface, that surface is immaculate. And, let’s not forget, that glamour itself is a term rooted in the world of spells and incantations.

Robinson is ably supported by a great selection of supporting players. All are memorable – credit again to Biller for her creations – but special mentions must go to Jeffrey Vincent Parise for his designer libertarian Wayne (underneath that ruggedness, such a ‘pussy’) and to Gian Keys as Griff, the stern and oft-oblivious detective torn between investigating Elaine… and falling for her.

The unhurried pacing and elaboration of certain scenarios means that The Love Witch feels every minute of its full two hours. Depending on how you take it that’s either a blessing or a curse. There’s a lot of material here, and one might argue for a more streamlined version of the film to marry it to modern sensibilities. But, just as equally, allowing these scenes to breathe and have their space finds Biller asking her audience to enjoy every inch of her movie. In that sense, it is generous. Giving over to the film in this way is very, very easy. So while it may seem to sprawl, the level of enjoyment taken from said sprawl will likely be equal to the appreciation of the aesthetic conjured in the viewer. Watching a movie is always a two-way street.

What can I say? I loved it. You will see nothing even vaguely similar to this at the moment, which goes some way to earning the film viewing rights as a curiosity alone. But the pleasures and rewards go beyond mere cinema as gimmick or quirky spectacle. That isn’t the intention here. There is relevancy to the work, and the film’s final moments speak forlornly to a society built on unattainable aspirations, where dreaming is as close as we’ll ever get to touching perfection.

For her part, Biller’s come close enough for all of us.

Score:  4.5 HEARTS

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