The Love Witch – movie review

With The Love Witch, Anna Biller has crafted one of the finest films of the 21st century. A beautifully photographed story about witchcraft, love, and an odd personality, the film deconstructs enormous amounts of Hollywood iconography by reaching back to films of the 1960s to re-envision classic horror and love stories. The witch at the center of her story fills in for femininity and horror at the same time as she kills only because she wants to be loved. It’s a charming, funny, and odd touch to see a horror movie so centered around love.

The love witch of the title role, Elaine, has an interest in magic that is treated as a blend of occultism and female mystique, but both are laden with cinematic trappings. Director Biller treats them all as inseparable things. It means that the magic of cinema, women, and witches are the same poetic idea in her film, and we see a rich study of Elaine’s character using intricate scenery and bright color schemes. It’s as though Biller takes her starring witch’s psychology of love and extrudes it into the movie’s scenery as one fantastical but incredibly normal place, which is part of why this is a horror comedy.

I enjoyed learning that Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and great psychological film Marnie was a major inspiration for the cinematography. Shot by Benjamin Loeb, The Love Witch has some of the most creative use of color I’ve seen since Michelangelo Antonioni. Like The Red Desert, it is able to use colors to portray the psychology of its characters. This is especially true of Samantha Robinson’s love witch, who is seen as a sympathetic and loving witch who just wants to be appreciated. We see her framed alongside vivid bright colors and soft pastels as well as darker facades of rich blackness. It shows the intensity of her emotion while also emphasizing gentleness and mystery. She’s supposed to be a dangerous witch, but she’s really funny and cute, and anyone with a heart has to like what Samantha Robinson does with the part. The cute mystique reminds me very much of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that classic sensibility is exactly what The Love Witch is after. 

The cinematography is exquisite and recreates technicolor very well. The director and cinematographer spent a lot of time studying 1960’s films, and Hitchcock was a major touchstone. Marnie is one of his greatest and most underrated films. Tippi Hedrin’s character has secrets of her own psychology that she has no idea about, and they tie back into past trauma and actions by her mother, a story of sexual derangement drawn from Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis and Freud. Sean Connery’s character tries to understand and help her, but he has a hard time working his way in. In some ways, Hitchcock’s film is about the impossibility of love and the search for it. Impossible, because people are by nature separate, but desire calls us to one another even though no companionship is really a unity, and with the masterly techniques of the thriller and his past studies of psychology, Hitchcock makes love into horror. It’s a brilliant psychological turn, and the beautiful diffuse lighting with its dreamy qualities and sharply defined colors play major roles in the film. The Love Witch is openly indebted and also fascinated with the gender roles at work there, particularly the rational assertiveness of Connery and the vulnerability and confusion of Hedrin.

Psychologically we delve into the love witch herself in deep and gentle ways that cross fantasy and reality in manners that remind me of the great Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. Elaine’s key motivation is simply love, and Anna Biller uses this as a comic trope. It also allows the development of horror and magic to happen, because her desire for love pushes her to extremes. Mystery enters the film as she explores the occult in her efforts to make someone love her, and she is open to other people through both love and magic. The film makes fun of the convention that women only care about love while also using it to define its characters through remarkably rich iconography that confronts the entire tradition of cinema and deeply embedded cultural ideas of gender. Elaine is only happy when she is outside of herself loving someone else, and being a witch becomes her vehicle for achieving that. Part of the film’s humor is that she is using magic to get something that is entirely normal and doesn’t require witchcraft at all.

The acting has a wonderful classic sense to it. Samantha Robinson embodies classic beauty as Elaine, and she is very up to the task. Biller shoots her amidst bright surrounding colors most often with classic dress, makeup, and hairstyles that offer small hints at traditional depictions of witches. The goal is obviously to merge the idea of the witch with the idea of being female. Jennifer Ingrum plays a cute and funny pagan priestess in a witch cult, and she captures the irony of the film the best of any of the actors. Elaine’s boyfriend is a cop who wants to be masculine and tough and is thus afraid of loving Elaine, and her previous boyfriends were killed by her when she couldn’t get enough love. The funny quirk of Elaine as a witch is that she really just wants love in spite of all her odd involvement with witchcraft and its horror trappings. When she can’t get enough love, she kills. It’s a bit of a joke about feminine portrayals in cinema.

The editing gives the film a slow and realistic pace. With editing having gotten so out of control with brief shots that make no sense in most cinema of today, Anna Biller is remarkable for taking us back to organic filmmaking. I want to say that the use of Avid and related software has done cinema a disservice. When actual film was cut on a flatbed machine, there was an impulse to make things actually fit into a structured narrative and logical film. Now that it is so easy to put an edit in with software, the cuts go in places where they don’t belong in order to move ultra fast and maintain short attention spans while masking bad shots. The Love Witch is a welcome improvement.

Anna Biller follows her characters and develops them instead. We understand her locations for their longer shots. Emotion develops in the film. Time has a real sense like this, and it is a better way to make movies. The degree to which this film is informed about cinematic technique and history is masterful, and Biller went to great effort to make sure this was made on actual film. Digital has overtaken the industry so much that it is hard and expensive to even shoot on film any longer, and we should be thankful to have such an organic and analogue example of great filmmaking. I recently watched Scarlet Diva by Asia Argento, and that film was one of the first shot on digital, back in 2000. 18 years later it still seems innovative, because Argento had to work to use a new form for her medium. Anna Biller’s use of real film in The Love Witch has the same magical sense to me now, because she had to seriously think and work at her use of an old form for a medium that has been cheapened by easily shot digital video being far too common now. 

Feminist themes are a major touching point for The Love Witch. Anna Biller is fascinated by traditional roles of women and closely examines them in 1960s cinema. I have to agree with her that Hitchcock is the lion of all that iconography. He constructed Hollywood cinema perhaps more than anyone, and his take on gender roles is something popular culture has inherited as traditional gospel. Biller uses Samantha Robinson’s character of Elaine to deconstruct those traditional roles, and she obviously knows that Hollywood tradition is a foundation for shaping the present in that very same sense. Our minds are shaped by these conventions, and getting inside the love witch’s head is a deconstruction of how they operate within and around us, and on the screen in its flickering light.

Occultism was researched extensively by Biller to make The Love Witch, and she obviously references Wicca and Thelema throughout her film. One is an effort to recreate traditional witchcraft by reconstructing it historically, and the other is a later creation by Alistair Crowley which claims divine inspiration and also love, but both have influenced hippies, the arts, and California pop culture. In Anna Biller’s hands, magic becomes a natural part of art, and true magic is spread throughout this movie in its beautiful and vivid images that suggest something more than the mundane, a closeness to fantasy that fascinated Maya Deren in her experimental films of much earlier. Meshes of the Afternoon was about finding magic in the everyday and the self and thus bringing that into cinema. The Love Witch has similar lofty goals in bright color and a long feature running time of two hours, and I think Anna Biller is in many respects the inheritor of Maya Deren.

Iconography of women, men, and horror trappings are studied carefully throughout The Love Witch, and one of Elaine’s fantasies is to have a man become sensitive and experience intense love like a woman. This is taken to comic extremes of crying sensitive men who want to be held, and the way it all comes together to successfully explain Elaine’s motivations in a traditional narrative sense while being at the same time absurd is a delight. It’s a remarkably light take on witches while at the same time delving deeply into their iconography, and I find it fascinating to explore against One-Eyed Dolls’ excellent album Witches about the Salem witch trials, which was a tragic time compared to the freedom of Anna Biller’s remarkable film about witchery.

The 1960s are lovingly recreated and examined all through the film. I agree with Biller about this being a seminal period in cinema and find the beauty of the colors, fluid camera work, slow editing, and self-referential sense of cinema to be at a high point in that era. It’s a wonderful period for horror, because people were thinking about social roles and psychology quite a bit, and it would lead to the works of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero in the next decade. Roman Polanski’s great horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, is of this era, and it also examined gender closely. This is my favorite 21st century horror film. So don’t miss The Love Witch if you don’t already know her technicolor aura.

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