The Love Witch is a delicate potion. It’s also pure art. Like the concoctions that our titular witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) makes in attempts to find true love, the chemistry of the film might not be perfect, but Anna Biller’s homage to Cinemascope isn’t just a mere recreation of a cinematic look from the swingin’ sixties past. Biller adds some modern feminist flair to this pop reverie.
The Love Witch blends the genres of horror, erotica and melodrama that utilized the brightest pastels and the biggest go-go scores in the 1950s and 60s. The result is a Technicolor fever dream that’s an absolute treat for anyone who’s familiar with the cinematic grounds on which Biller treads here. And although the acting is purposefully stilted and overtly telegraphed, it shouldn’t feel like a trick on genre fans who haven’t yet opened the bizarre and sexy treasure troves of Frank Tashlin, Douglas Sirk, Sergio Martino, Radley Metzger, Jess Franco and old school soap operas. (And for those who do know those auteurs, yes, it does sound odd to put Tashlin’s cartoons/ Jayne Mansfield musicals and Sirk’s colorful melodramas astride Martin’s sexy slashers and the experimental art erotica of Metzger and Franco, but that’s definitely a potent sample from Biller’s chemistry set.)
Elaine is introduced fleeing town in a convertible up the coast, chain smoking and lamenting her rough knockdown from love. The sexy and mysterious dancer was recently dumped and is on a quest to find love at all cost. She does not want to leave anything to chance, so she begins making potions, collecting the right herbs and gifting her charms and quick jumps into bed to any potential mate. Trouble is, whether it’s the rugged naturalist professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a friend’s husband (Robert Seeley), or a rugged square-jawed cop hilariously named Griff (Gian Keys), her potions of instant love make the men softies who want to profess their every emotion to her and then she’s no longer interested in them. “What a pussy,” she says after leaving the professor wailing naked in bed because he can’t handle the drugs she gave him or her absence from bed. Their desire for her is so strong they all become whimpering softies when she denies them her presence.
In addition to the colorful directors listed above, The Love Witch feels somewhat akin to a John Waters-type wholesome and fringe comedy. This stunning beauty (and self taught chemist and artist) can’t seem to find love because she has no sense of self, just a fairytale misunderstanding of true love. And the bodies pile up.
In addition to walking a wholesome and counterculture line, I mention Waters because this feels like a film that would absolutely bedevil his sense of taste. There is so much style in Witch, from the costumes to the paintings to the ornate Victorian Tea Room, all designed and crafted by Biller to cast a spell that makes you unable to look away from the screen the same way that mean are unable to look away from Elaine. As we enter year-end discussions of superlatives, Biller deserves her own award (she even did sections of the score, all of Elaine’s paintings and hand-weaved rugs!). The Love Witch is an art project that looks so sumptuous you’ll want a sequel so you can return to these rooms while Elaine creates potions and gets rid of obsessed suitors.
Yet, despite this paragon of professional design and colorful odes to melodramas, eroticas and cheap exploitation films, the cast is purposefully directed as though they’re also under a spell of amateurism. Sometimes this flat acting works to a charming degree (such as the telegraphed manly talk of getting laid, earnestly set at the police department coffee pot) but at a two-hour run time, it begins to feel a little bloated in both story and in adherence to the actorly stiffness. Robinson, it should be noted, is superb from beginning to end, however, as we can see her separate her moments of telegraphed presentation from her moments of disgust at how quickly the men fall out of the gender role type she desires. Ultimately there’s so much pride on display here that the purposeful stilted acting is only a small quibble that occasionally creates pockets of impatience.
Although the design, mood and discovery of Robinson are the superficial delights of The Love Witch, there is a subtle statement about a woman’s role in genre. Although Elaine fits the mold of victim of 60s giallo and horror films—sexy, promiscuous and trusting of strangers—she’s the violent threat here but she’s also not a woman to celebrate, as she’s devoid of personality, caters to men’s desires and doesn’t believe enough in her own attractive qualities to bewitch someone naturally. Additionally, she is a woman who desires each gender to follow specific roles, including men to be detached from their emotions. What she craves is love, which requires openness, but her concept of love does not allow for vulnerabilities, she holds a storybook notion of a maintaining a constant feeling of fluttering butterflies and manly protection.
The Love Witch is ultimately the opposite of Elaine. It oozes confidence and puts you under a spell naturally. Purveyors of genre curiosities should definitely put The Love Witch on their list; you’ll either fall under its pastel and free love spell or find yourself screaming that you can’t handle it. Just like Elaine’s victims.
The Love Witch opens in select theaters on November 11 and rolls out across the US the following weeks. You can find a theatrical schedule by clicking “screenings” here.