By Lana Rhiannon
“The Love Witch”, Anna Biller’s 2016 comedy horror film, opens with Elaine (Samantha Robinson) driving along America’s west coast, fleeing from the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her husband. Elaine is the titular love witch, and embarks on a quest of murderous seduction as she searches for her perfect man. The film is a heady combination of sex magic, glamour and feminist critique that also serves as a love letter to Hitchcock, Hammer horror, and the most lurid cinema of the 1960s. Under Biller’s direction and meticulous attention to detail, “The Love Witch” is itself a glamour spell; as well as directing, writing and producing the film, Biller is responsible for its art, set, costume and sound design.
It would be easy to suggest that the film is merely an aesthetically pleasing technicolor hallucination, or that Biller is essentially paying homage to older works and other directors. “The Love Witch” is far more sophisticated and subversive than this. Biller sweeps you away into her surreal imagination so that moments, when the film deconstructs itself, are especially potent: Elaine removes her wig and draws attention to her inherent artifice as a fictional character; monologues carry across the fourth wall to address us directly; modern cars and mobile phones shatter any impression that “The Love Witch” belongs to a hermetically sealed past.
“Visually, the entire film is like walking into and wandering through a tarot card, and its final act suggests the complete abandonment of the physical, rational world for an archetypal and magical one.”
Elaine uses rituals and potions to lure men to her while simultaneously reinventing herself through witchcraft, and by controlling her own image through makeup and clothing. Chameleon-like, she changes into pastel shades to blend with the delicate pinks and lilacs of the Victorian tearoom where she talks of the necessity of catering to the needs and expectations of men so as to secure their love: “Giving men sex,” she tells her neighbour Trish (Laura Waddell), “is a way of unlocking their love potential”. The most interesting and difficult to untangle aspect of “The Love Witch” is that Elaine oscillates between aparent complicitness in her own objectification and a wild celebration of her desires and erotic power.
Visually, the entire film is like walking into and wandering through a tarot card, and its final act suggests the complete abandonment of the physical, rational world for an archetypal and magical one. More than this, the trauma and pain that are at the root of Elaine’s impulses are indicated throughout “The Love Witch” by the recurrence of the Three of Swords card — a crimson heart pierced through with three blades. Trish is an interior designer, and explains that the room that Elaine rents is inspired by the colour palette of the Thoth tarot deck — the deck dreamed up by the infamous English ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley and illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris.
Crowley is an interesting point of reference throughout the film, as is Anton LaVey, the leader of the non-theistic Church of Satan which he founded himself in California in the 1960s. Among LaVey’s (mostly questionable) ideas on personal empowerment is that women in particular are able to manipulate people and circumstances by way of glamour magic. Crowley, decades earlier, sought a supreme manifestation of feminine power in a progression of Scarlet Women.
In “The Love Witch”, Elaine is actively resisting being used like this for another’s magical or sexual satisfaction. Instead, she harnesses her occult knowledge and becomes a deadly and devouring predator by embodying her own fantasies. Elaine has been described elsewhere as a white witch, but her path is much darker, a post-midnight shade of black, and it’s refreshing that this is not where Biller situates the film’s true horrors.
“Everything about “The Love Witch” is heightened, a psychedelic and scarlet-blood spattered melodrama, but its glossy, stylized surfaces and performances are used to explore the intricacies and paradoxes of desire.”
We learn that Elaine tumbled down the occult rabbit hole in San Francisco, learning her craft from a group of witches who predominantly teach that a witch finds her power by weaponising her body and sexuality. Gahan (Jared Sanford), the High Priest of the group, calls for free love while leading the women who follow him to perform femininity for the pleasure of the male gaze and turn themselves into the ultimate fantasy figure. As such, “The Love Witch” holds a mirror up to any occult groups and societies that fall back into patriarchal power dynamics while preaching radical freedom.
The men that Elaine bewitches are invariably disappointing. While the film derives much of its humour the reactions of her potential romantic partners, it’s also very telling that they can’t come close to matching Elaine’s complexity, and are terrified by and unable to contain or adequately process the emotions that she arouses in them.
Everything about “The Love Witch” is heightened, a psychedelic and scarlet-blood spattered melodrama, but its glossy, stylized surfaces and performances are used to explore the intricacies and paradoxes of desire. When she is alone and submerging herself in her own fantasies, Elaine is drawn to a mixture of memories of being criticized by her father and of being physically restrained and overpowered by the High Priest during an initiation ritual. Biller refuses to be confined by any rules or limits in the possibilities of cinematically expressing subjective female pleasure, and this is perhaps the film’s greatest success.
Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), Elaine’s friend and magical mentor, informs us that “the whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of female sexuality. They burned us at the stake because they feared the erotic feelings we elicited in them. Later, they used marriage to hold us in bondage and made us into servants, whores and fantasy dolls, never asking us what we wanted”. At its core, “The Love Witch” plays on and dismantles anxieties surrounding the destructive and liberating potential of unbridled female desire, and it’s clear that if Elaine does not claim and deploy her innate powers herself, they would be turned against her. The film is as sensual and seductive as its main character, dripping with glamour and casting a spell that sends you spiraling to the shadow side of love.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars