There is a subset of contemporary horror that seeks to return to the formative experiences of its artist's encounters with the genre. The work of directors such as Ti West, David Robert Mitchell, and Adam Wingard evoke the films that got them into cinema (namely, the work of John Carpenter). This nostalgia is sincere and welcome, yet it feels as though that is only superficial, that the nostalgia for the style and technique is of utmost importance and not an understanding of what makes the material unique in the first place. Even more so, it can't be helped to look at these films as being specifically about masculine nostalgia for the genre. So, one might think there should be a feminine answer to this nostalgia. Answering that need in an almost cosmic fashion is The Love Witch, Anna Biller's 2016 femme horror magnum opus.
The story concerns Elaine Parker (Samantha Robinson), a modern witch who yearns for a man to love her. She moves to a new town to evade police who suspect she murdered her last lover (to be fair, she did) and start anew. In her new Gothic Victorian apartment, she makes and sells spells and potions, many having to do with sex and power. Things begin to deteriorate as her spells work aggressively well, and bodies and broken relationships start to pile up. Worse yet, she meets the man of her dreams (Gian Keys), and it is a cop investigating a murder she accidentally committed. Elaine's mental faculties steadily decline as more and more tension mounts. To say much else or to be too specific about the plot would be a disservice to the film, and the film is more occupied with theme and aesthetic.
A cursory glance at the film's aesthetic makes it seem like a recently restored cult classic from either the fifties or sixties, the kind that might be spotlit by Nicholas Winding Refn. Yet it isn't; it's a contemporary film designed from the ground up to mimic the sensibilities of films of the era. Everything about the film, its costumes, sets, pacing, and the acting style is a seamless mimicry of the era's sensibilities. It feels redundant to observe the high quality of these parts due to this, but they are exemplary. I'm tempted to compare it to similar retro-stylized postmodern directors like Todd Haynes or Guy Maddin. Like Maddin, the film maintains a classical, almost archaic aesthetic. Like Haynes, it uses this traditional style to comment on itself and find meaning in it. In this case, the film is a homage to women's films of the era and addresses the lack of a genuine feminine vision of these films. Thus, Anna Biller adds herself to the conversation.
Biller is a much more classical, all-encompassing variation of an auteur than what we are used to in more contemporary and mainstream cinema. Biller, like Charlie Chaplin or Shane Carruth, has her hands in almost every facet of the production. Not only did she write, produce, and direct the film, she is also responsible for the production design, costuming, editing, and even the score. The only way Biller could've had more control over this film is if she was also the cinematographer, a job that she has never had for any of her movies. Almost to one, she is the singular driving force behind all of the film's significant elements.
The definitive way that The Love Witch is different from Biller's prior work is that Biller does not play the lead in it. Samantha Robinson does, and I can't stress enough how much of an improvement it is. Biller is an incredibly talented woman, there's no denying that, but I feel that the one area she lacks in is as an actress. Robinson, on the other hand, loudly announces herself as a significant talent. She perfectly fits into Biller's sensibilities, evoking a classical Hollywood style performance that resonates on a profoundly emotional level. Robinson's Elaine is wonderfully realized, finding a balance between showcasing immense charisma and power to heart sundering loneliness. The film doesn't necessarily live and die by her performance (Biller's work is incredible throughout), but it's what helps the movie soar beyond Biller's usual fare.
The film's most popular reading is as a feminist rejection of Christian patriarchy. Elaine, very early into the film, discusses her frustrations with men and later in the film lament the roles women in society have. Thus she became a witch, moving closer to the base of her coven to pursue a more fulfilling existence. She feels liberated from the bonds of patriarchy and thinks that she is free to explore her own identity however she sees fit. Yet there is tension in her. She still desires the approval and affection of men, so she confuses erotic stirrings for romantic feelings. Or perhaps she doesn't see the difference between the two. Even more so, the coven she has joined has a male leader who, when he advances unto her, is repulsed and disgusted by. What I initially believed was a story about women's liberation from patriarchy turned into an account about how inescapable patriarchy was, and how even women's lib could be infiltrated and reworked to be in the service of men ultimately.
Elaine's paradoxical frustration with patriarchy but yearning for that same patriarchal approval makes for a fascinating character study, albeit one that isn't wholly unique to The Love Witch. Thematically, you can see the similarities between Biller's film and David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014). Both Elaine and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) are women driven to sociopathology by their need for autonomy and respect in patriarchal worlds that view them as little more than sex objects, yet also profoundly desire the approval of men. Both films showcase how each character is considerably more complicated than that, as each hints at a background of undiagnosed psychosis and horrifying behavior. They also share a common ancestor in John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Another woman, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), becomes so desperate for masculine love that she goes to extreme violence to achieve and maintain it. The Love Witch leans more into Leave Her To Heaven's particular brand of melodrama than Gone Girl does. Yet, all three films exist in this specific lens of complex, women-centered stories about women failing to live within patriarchy.
The Love Witch is a highly subversive, politically radical feminist horror film that is familiar and different from everything we have seen to this point. It is equal parts a sincere love letter to classical styles and deconstruction of their politics, a fascinating character study, and an unnerving thriller. Biller has crafted a film that could comfortably be described as a midnight movie, an intriguing entry into contemporary horror, even if only it eschews masculine genre nostalgia for feminine genre nostalgia.
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