The best kind of pastiche, the sort that vividly conjures a past that never truly existed.
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is the best kind of pastiche, the sort that vividly conjures a past that never truly existed. Its rich Technicolor-esque palettes and stilted exploitation dialogue vaguely allude to films from the 1960s, but direct comparisons are hard to identify. A scene in a tea parlor decked out in florid pinks, for example, immediately calls to mind My Fair Lady, and the pulsing purples, fulsome reds and assorted other primary and secondary colors recall the similar patterns of Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor as much as the richly chromatic giallo of Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria.
As for the exploitation angle, even Biller objects to the use of the term as a potential label for the film, and it is true that if the movie has any relationship at all to the exploitation genre, it is both abstract and confrontational. The protagonist, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), cheerfully informs the audience via voiceovers that she is a true witch, concocting potions and casting spells with amoral abandon. Yet the nature of her magic appears crude and single-minded, focused solely on making any man she wants fall madly in love with her. In an amusing twist, at times it is difficult to tell whether the dazzled men who fixate on her have been bewitched or if she simply transfixes them by her openly sexual desire.
As such, the film largely eschews any linear plot in favor of episodic scenes of seduction, which transpires through a heavily typed set of men, all of whom appear to have walked out of a fashion magazine of the late ‘60s. Square jaws and respectable haircuts abound. The most notable of Elaine’s conquests is Wayne, a rakish, long-haired college professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) who literally breaks off a conversation with a young woman he’d been eyeing to talk to Elaine. He takes her to his countryside retreat, where he completely falls apart in declarations of love. Hilariously, this sequence devotes equal time to Elaine having fun with her new boy-toy and being immediately bored with him, leaving to another room after sex as he regresses into a simpering child crying after her.
Subversions of the male gaze are becoming increasingly common, but Biller does not simply swap erotic perspectives. Though the material is obviously sexualized, its view of sex is less titillating than curious, taking the open attitude of the protagonist as a foundation to explore various aspects of desire and the way that people relate to one another. Because she can completely entrance someone in seconds, she need never worry about having to build relationships, and as such when the men she loves shortly die after she uses them, she views it as nothing more than the natural order of things. Even so, Elaine is capable of genuine affection, but it is curdled around an indifference to others born of her ability to have any man. Regularly, her thoughts are interrupted with visions of a relationship that torments her, one in which she clearly killed the man but still thinks of him as her late husband and has largely suppressed the memory of his murder. This complexity thwarts any reading of the film as merely parodic, and the twists and turns of the final act, with its investigations and revelations, turns Elaine from a wry subversion into a cryptic, interpretive figure. Biller even acknowledges the pitfalls of exploring the feminine through sexual relations, as Elaine’s best friend, Trish (Laura Waddell) calls her out when she notes that Elaine’s philosophy of self-discovery and empowerment through sex still defines her against the men she uses.
Despite these provocative asides, The Love Witch remains a comedy first, and it draws a great deal of amusement from the hopelessly slack-jawed reactions of the men who fall under Elaine’s sway. Robinson’s own performance borrows from the heavily affected, stiff methods common to exploitation movies but turns it into deliberate aloofness, making her humor self-aware instead of inadvertent. Elaine’s unrepentant nature comes to a manic head near the end, when her chipper nature collides with an increasingly harried and grieving Trish and exposes a wedge that explodes in the climax. The payoff to this affectation is proof of how carefully ordered the film is, with no elements used simply for their own sake. Even the color palettes of the film have a purpose, arguably reflecting the feminine perspective in its eye for detail than any contradiction of sexual gazes or lust.