Review: ‘The Love Witch’ (2016)

Film: The Love Witch
Year: 2016
Director: Anna Biller
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Rating: 5/10

*This review contains spoilers*

Even though our society has moved beyond a collective compulsion to burn at the stake, or drown in the nearest body of water, the women who intimidate or confound us, it is still commonplace in our language to discuss femininity in terms of magic and sorcery. One needs only think of the amount of times that we have been described a romance as synonymous with falling ‘under a spell’, or, the amount of times that dalliances have soured and relationships described as ‘curses’. Considering the ease with which these bromides occur in our discourse, it comes as no surprise that Feminist director Anna Biller should want to investigate the seriousness of taking this terminology at its linguistic value.

For example, in Elaine (Robinson) – the eponymous ‘love witch’ – the viewer finds a young woman that wants only to love and be loved in return. However, a bad experience with her ex-husband Jerry (Wozniak) leaves her with a broken heart and in doubt of men’s capacity to love. Elaine turns to magic, using the comfort of Tarot and the structure of other practitioners to re-establish a sense of order in her world turned upside down. Believing, as Biller does, that men can only go so deeply into love and struggle to substantiate lust with emotion, Elaine begins to use ‘sex magic’ to create ‘love magic’. She quickly realizes, however, that her magic is too strong and that the combined agency of her eros and her philia is too much for the, newly-dubbed, weaker sex and causes their deaths. Through these interactions Elaine becomes something of a serial killer, dispatching each man that she encounters with the intensity of her love. It is often unclear throughout the film how responsible she is for the deaths. Whilst it is true that she gives Wayne (Parise) a homemade alcoholic concoction including hallucinogenic herbs which contribute to his expiration, it is presented on the screen that his death was the fault of his inability to contain the complex emotions he was developing for Elaine. It is not until her final victim, the police officer investigating the trail of deceased men, Griff (Keys), that her murderous inclinations are exposed, as she drives a knife into his heart in ritualistic homage to the painting that she has on her bedroom wall.

The message that Biller has for us through The Love Witch is a potent one, and Elaine is a figurehead for the conflicted woman of the twenty-first century, both an empowered female, yet one in possession of ingrained misogynistic discourse. Biller demonstrates that men criminalize and fear women for their sexuality and their self-empowerment in much the same way as witches were centuries ago, and shows that women can use their oppressed position to gain leverage; yes, provide men with what they want but in a way that allows you to engineer what you want from the situation.

Whilst the director’s criticism on gender relations is something to be taken seriously, it is difficult at times to view The Love Witch as more than satiric farce that undermines the seriousness of the film’s subtext. For example, the film is full of all of the over-acting of a B-Movie compensating for a small cast and low production budget, extreme close-ups that create suspense in spite of the dialogue, pretending to drive cars against backdrops, gaudy sets and garish costumes, and sneaking phrases of Für Elise into the soundtrack. If it wasn’t for the fact that Biller claims all aesthetic similarities to 1970s films were accidental, except for instances of lighting, then The Love Witch could be considered a masterclass in vintage framing. However, if these style choices were unintentional, it serves to suggest an instantly outdated quality to the film, or an unusual creative direction, that fails to appeal to a mainstream audience.

There are many of us that have a secret passion for B-Movies, and could learn to appreciate the aesthetic that The Love Witch offers in the same way that we accept The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), only without the music, and everything according to the colour scheme of a Tarot deck. It seems likely that even fewer could appreciate the static characters, and the incongruous scene changes. Moving from a hard-boiled detective segment, to ridiculing the police investigating a ‘witch bottle’ and revealing that they have never seen a used tampon, to a medieval renaissance fair and mock-weddings, the film invites you on a roller-coaster ride of satire, whimsy, and independent scenes that would have worked better as sketches or as short films.

One could argue that all of these characteristics were intentional and contribute to the symbolic meaning of The Love Witch; the shallowness of the plot to reflect the perceptions of women as superficial creatures, the episodic manslaughter to demonstrate the criminalization of femininity during acts of self-empowerment, and the incongruous scene changes to create a sense of confusion and nonsense to comment on the representation of women in contemporary society. Whilst all these things may be true, and certainly should be factored when absorbing and meditating upon the film’s message about gender relations, it does not constitute good cinema. It is difficult to be dismissive of a film that is clearly offering something important to society beyond the entertainment of Hollywood Blockbusters, and yet, what is the value of the message if the film is presented in a style that is unappealing to its audience?

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