If you’re able to overlook the background modern cars, the stickers on the soles of Elaine’s black boots, and Trish’s mobile phone, ‘The Love Witch’ (2016) could easily be mistaken for a psychedelic, Italian giallo horror, or tantalising technicolour melodrama of the 1950s and 60s, to which it pays otherwise flawless homage.
Written, directed, composed, designed, and shot on 35mm film by Anna Biller, with cinematographer M. David Mullen, ‘The Love Witch’ is a feminist fantasy horror-comedy decorated with layer upon layer of vivid, visual icing sugar.
The mise-en-scène is delectable. If ‘The Love Witch’ were food, it would be any of the various indulgent cakes that the camera lingers upon throughout its two-hour run time. The acting is humorously and purposely wooden, permeated with unnatural exchanges, overtly, luxuriously sexualised scenes, and drawn out drags of cigarette after cigarette.
The story is that of Elaine, a young, widowed witch whose outfit matches her luggage matches her car. We meet her whilst driving toward a new chapter in life; her internal monologue narrated with the exaggerated elongations of a contemporary Californian. She arrives at none other than Bair-Stokes House; if you like Victorian Gothic architecture and frequent any image sharing site, chances are you’ve drooled over this 1888 Queen Anne beauty before.
It’s all so exceptionally ‘grammable’. #witchaesthetic.
Trish, the interior decorator to Elaine’s new home, is introduced as the opening sequence segues into the narrative. Hers is the kind of face that smiles wholly, with eyes that narrow in search of the good in others. She seems sincerely interested in Elaine’s well-being, but a judgmental ignorance surfaces in the brief, deliberate moment that she reacts to her new friend’s former occupation. Is this non-verbal prejudice highlighted as justification for her future misfortune? Which is less feminist: to judge a woman for her actions, or to punish her opinions?
Positioned in opposition to the conservative English Trish, Elaine is seductive and immediately accepted as the liberated, independent heroine of the film. Trish is the kind of woman who takes her tea black, on its own. Elaine lives deliciously. Surely she who has her cake, and eats slice after sumptuous slice of it, is our hero?
But the thing is, Elaine is obsessed, not empowered. As encompassed by the eponymous title of her story, her main defining characteristics are her mission for love and her practice of witchcraft. She has, on one hand, physical, sexual, magickal power over men, but remains undeniably governed by an unquenchable desire for their reciprocated love. She wants men to love women with the same consuming emotion that she believes women have for men. She seeks this by enchanting a string of suitors, creating nothing but destruction, whilst revealing the weakness of her craft. Each love interest is overwhelmed by affection – the melodramatic masculine version of a Gothic heroine’s swoon – to the point of death. The dominance within the sexual power struggle has undeniably shifted, and in her favour, but is still the crux of the narrative.
We come to understand Elaine not as a one-dimensional powerhouse of feminist revenge against the male chauvinism of film history, but as a female villain in the significantly central role. Although Elaine may dispel the cliché that attractive witches are good and ugly ones are evil, the issue remains, however, that she’s not a villain that I can champion. Not least because her actions are anti-feminist, but because she isn’t evil enough. Despite inhabiting a pastiche world, she possesses the worryingly recognisable qualities of real, yet remorseless, misguided young women. But actually, this may very well be the success of ‘The Love Witch’…
Between decadent scenes of pagan practice, and seductive stripping, Trish continually pops up as a reminder of reality. Her presence helps to position the film within its wider, political context, and avoid the viewer being charmed into ignorance. Though painfully traditional in contrast to Elaine, we come to realise that she is no less a feminist, and in fact more aware than our enticing protagonist. Surprisingly, she is the character that grows the most during the course of Elaine’s story.
Joining the Love Witch in widowhood, Trish finally indulges: violently jabbing her dessert with a fork. The result is the single most haunting and provocative still of the entire film. Trish has her ‘Single White Female’ moment, and learns that a woman can indeed possess both morals and lingerie. She has her cake and eats it too.
Through exposition, ‘The Love Witch’ offers itself as a valuable resource on modern principles of witchcraft. Members of Elaine’s coven, male witch Gahan and High Priestess Barbara, also offer direct insight into the very purpose of the film. With a burlesque dancer performing on stage behind them, they break the fourth wall to educate Elaine and their audience simultaneously. They discuss the vilification of woman as ‘witch’ due to male fear of female sexuality and emotion. Close-ups of the beguiling dancer reveal her joy, her consent, and her empowerment, which is starkly juxtaposed against the problematic self-fetishisation of Elaine. Elaine is driven by misguided indoctrination and harmful, fantasy ideals, though her intentions are pure. And this is why she fails, as a Love Witch, and a villain, but succeeds in embodying an important message.
That consent is essential, regardless of gender.
That there are differences between the sexes, but equality is attainable.
That a woman can have power, and sensitivity, and beauty, concurrently.
Ultimately, whether you succumb, wide-eyed to the allure of Elaine, or continue to question the complex role of ‘woman’ days after viewing, I defy you to argue that this is not an artful labour of love and cinematic witchcraft.
You can buy or rent ‘The Love Witch’ through the official website, here.
For optimum viewing pleasure, enjoy with the most sumptuous cake you can conjure, and share your thoughts in the comments below!