Skillfully Coifed Love Witch a Magical Cyanide Cocktail
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is determined to find a man she can love. She adores love, so much so she’s devoted her study of witchcraft and the occult into achieving it no matter the cost. Problem is, she’s spent so much time transforming herself into what she believes is the masculine version of the porcelain doll ideal that she’s lost sight of the line that exists between right and wrong. While her spells bring men her way, once she has them, Elaine quickly realizes they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and the only way to make sure they don’t keep mindlessly pursuing her is to make certain they’re placed a good six-feet underneath the ground where they can’t do any harm.
Shot on 35mm, made with retro 1960s Technicolor purity, writer/director Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is a feat of technical wizardry, its production design, costumes, art direction and especially cinematography beyond reproach. But it is the cunning intelligence of the script, its dark, complexly feminist mechanics that make the movie sing. Biller has composed an eviscerating black comedy that pulls zero punches and is completely unafraid of pushing as many buttons as it can, holding a spotlight up to society’s assessment of the feminine mystique only to menacingly twist it all right on top of its majestically coifed head.
Is Elaine a villain? Is she a hero? Or is she a victim of society’s obsession with beauty and gender stereotypes? There aren’t any easy answers, at least, not any that Biller cares to answer. Instead, she offers up scenarios and situations that continually blur the line. Elaine is a serial killer, there’s no denying that, but the twisted pains and complicated circumstances that made her that way are hinted at throughout. While the movie never forgives her actions, it does ask the viewer to understand them, creating an uncomfortable sense of mystery where right and wrong no longer apply.
This aura of moral imbalance is centered around Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat stereotypical girl-next-door who ends up becoming Elaine’s first new friend when she arrives in San Francisco. Like everyone else, she’s initially hypnotized by the vibrant, go-getting young woman, slightly embarrassed with how openly she is willing to talk about sex, love and all sorts of matters of the heart. It’s easy for her to get swept along for the ride, but when the point comes where Elaine realizes how far the artifice extends and just how terrifically damaged her new girlfriend actually might be the shock she feels is ruinous. Affection turns to horror, the idea that a fellow woman could damage herself so completely just to a please a man a shock to her system yet, in some ways even more terrifying, it is also an idea she can understand and relate to at the exact same time.
Biller, an old Hollywood aficionado whose love for all things Hitchcock, Sirk, Wilder and all the rest seemingly knows no bounds, has imagined a world that is retro and modern, both seemingly at once, and as such creates a lushly unsettling visual landscape that had me questions what was going on right from the very beginning of the film. Echoes of Bell, Book and Candle, Arsenic and Old Lace, Marnie, Vertigo, Written on the Wind and even The Vampire Lovers abound, while a brazenly sexual streak reminiscent of The Wicker Man can be felt throbbing throughout. She’s littered the movie with bright pinks and comforting blues, every color under the sun popping with a jovial electricity that’s positively shocking.
But, much like Elaine herself, her makeup always on point, her hair perfect, her clothes dripping in womanly élan, it’s all an act, a bittersweet façade that’s been manufactured to excite the gaze and misdirect from the actual central goings on taking place right there in plain sight. Much like Robinson’s sublime performance (think Kim Novak by way of Tippi Hedren and Lauren Bacall), the trickery is by design, the brutal nature of why things are the way they frustratingly are the reasons the character turns to homicide in order to find what she believes might be the perfect soul mate.
I really don’t want to say more. Biller’s movie is a royal, devilishly nasty treat that is as magical as it is potent, the potion the filmmaker has whipped up for all of us to drink going down as smoothly as an expertly mixed cocktail with a tiny pink umbrella, only here the secret ingredient is cyanide, not grenadine. There’s nothing like The Love Witch, and that’s a good thing, for if there were, I seriously doubt I’d be as captivated with this marvelous bit of murderous whimsy as I most assuredly am.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)