Fantasia Fest Review: THE LOVE WITCH

Both style and substance, and damn, do I like its style.

Anna Biller has designed The Love Witch to the hilt. This is a gorgeous movie, shot on film and lovingly rendered in eye-popping Technicolor pastiche that suffuses every frame. Biller directed her own screenplay, yes, but she also created the lavish sets and costumes and paintings; she composed the note-perfect period score; she edited the film, precisely recreating the overformal atmosphere and halting pacing of old Hollywood genre. What could feel like your run-of-the-mill, self-referential homage is made something much, much more by Biller's absolute devotion to the period, seen in every inch and heard in every note of a film that she created in full. This is less an affectation than a religion.

And though The Love Witch’s extraordinary aesthetic is doubtlessly the star of the show, this is still a film with something to say. Biller has a fiercely feminist point of view, and behind Elaine’s Donna Reed domesticity and single-minded aim to gratify the male gaze, there is something aggressively, biologically woman about her: bloody tampons, pee-squat and all. Elaine's witchcraft is all love and sex; she seeks a man relentlessly, obsessively, so much so that even a casual acquaintance, her landlord Trish (Laura Waddell), tells her she’s been “brainwashed by the patriarchy.” But Elaine is far more apt to brainwash the patriarchy, one man at a time; a flutter of her eyelashes, a twitch of her hip, and they’re hers.

Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, and she is phenomenal, an undeniable force of magnetism and sex. She has never a hair out of place, her eyeshadow and lipstick always just so, her frock matching her handbag matching her shoes matching the wallpaper. When she isn’t perfectly clad, she is perfectly unclad, Robinson spending the lion’s share of the film in sexy undergarments or nothing much at all, but her appeal is more than lust. It’s power, in her eyes and her voice, the power to convince us that every man who stumbles into her path could fall dangerously, fatally in love with this woman.

The men are all idiots, useless and pliable, overshadowed by their far more engaging other halves. Burlesque dancers in the background hold our attention though two men are talking in the center of the frame; a nameless tearoom harpist gets an astonishing amount of screentime; every wife is twice as interesting as her husband. Biller has created a world of feminine mystique made tangible, colorful and tidy and sensual.

And like women, this world is also very strange, and very funny – though The Love Witch never dabbles in anything as prosaic as parody, much of the film’s studied awkwardness will surprise a laugh out you. Of course, that awkwardness can feel a bit tedious, and at two hours The Love Witch is too long, particularly for such a small story.

But I could spend two, or two dozen, hours more in a world of Anna Biller's making. The Love Witch may stand as more of a showcase of Biller's talents than a story in and of itself, but maybe her talents are the story. Watching this movie, I found myself distracted by wanting to know everything about Biller: who is this woman who sews and scores and designs and edits and writes and directs and produces and paints? Like any of Elaine's hapless victims, I am now wholly entranced. It seems Biller herself is the Love Witch.