Anna Biller may be one of the cinema’s last truly exceptional auteurs. Sure, the term itself is thrown around a lot, and sure, it’s particularly challenging to register as one when dealing almost exclusively in homage. Somewhere and somehow, Biller – born and raised in Los Angeles – finds a way, but regardless of the individual viewer’s tolerance for the director’s unabashed parading of influences and intent, her voice is positively one-of-a-kind.
Nearly an entire decade may have separated Biller’s feature debut (2007’s VIVA) and her latest oddball offering, but the same powerfully progressive voice remains unmistakably in-tact. THE LOVE WITCH concerns, as you could probably guess, a contemporary (?) witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) pursuing a suitable male companion by means of black magic. Holed up as the new tenant in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion, she practices making potions, but as we learn from her voice-over narration in the coastal cruise intro, Elaine’s still got a lot to learn.
The heroine’s quest is initially driven by the desire to be desired – preferably by all who should happen upon her but more specifically by men. The trail of gullible bastards she leaves in her wake – including but certainly not limited to suave University professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a police inspector (Gian Keys) perplexed by the prospect of a tampon submerged in a bottle of piss, and even her own ex-husband – ultimately leads the witch on a path to reclaiming individuality that is as hysterical as it is genuinely insightful.
Firmly rooted in a bygone era (or several), the film features, among other seductive delights, exceedingly over-the-top performances, vintage costumes and décor, music borrowed from the likes of classic gialli A LIZARD AND A WOMAN’S SKIN and THE FIFTH CORD (both scores courtesy of Ennio Morricone), and M. David Mullen’s photography is spot-on in recreating even the most seemingly insignificant ticks of 60’s/70’s occult-sleaze cinema to a tee. It’s a seamless evocation of everything it claims to be, but there’s much more to this beatific brew than an ornate toast to the silver screen of yesteryear.
A great artist is always flourishing, and flourish is precisely what the writer/director/set and costume designer/composer/etc. has done in her absence. True to such developments, this is perhaps the furthest extension of Biller’s vision that she’s graced us with yet; more interesting than the obvious parallels between a witch and the contemporary female is, well, just about everything else regarding the patriarchy that the film dares to challenge under the guise of an amusing, consistently vibrant entertainment.
Biller would rather her indignant criticisms fester on the surface, which allows for a remarkably articulate confrontation of gender stereotypes that feels empathetic where it could have just as easily been perceived as preachy. THE LOVE WITCH neglects to give off the impression of a work influenced too much by invasive contempt, instead seeking to explore equality by way of humility. A medieval-style wedding late in the game, complete with faux duels and a puppet-toting jester, holds the key to the filmmaker’s stance on both passion and passiveness alike. Elaine’s maturation, twisted as it is, is hardly glorified; in fact, she’s just as damned as her predominantly male victims. Nevertheless, the argument appears to be that it’s time the sorceress had her day as well, however demented and morally conflicting it may be.
It’s easy to surrender to the film’s campy, hallucinatory charms but Biller’s decision to balance her immanent cinematic fetishisms with such a biting, subversive critique is the true stroke of genius. Getting lost in WITCH’s candy-colored ocean is one thing, extracting individually invaluable observations is another. Once again, the filmmaker reaches into the past in order to look to the future – that of man, woman, and our relationship with one another – and the culmination of this particular excursion speaks for itself, loud and clear. It announces its spectacular existence until it knows that it doesn’t have to, and if this is indicative of where we’re headed, we might just be in good hands.