First things first – I need to give major kudos to David Ehrlich for being one of the best film critics working today. His taste is always flawless, and we can see that in his gorgeous year-end best-of lists (even if he didn’t include the masterpiece Birdman in his 2014 list, but I forgive him). The reason why I’m mentioning him here is because his 2016 list included a film I hadn’t heard of, and ever since I watched his stunning video, I have been seeking The Love Witch. Ehrlich has such incredible taste in smaller and more unconventional films, and The Love Witch was one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had, and kudos to him for bringing it to my attention, because without him, I probably wouldn’t have even given this film a second thought.
The Love Witch is about Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young and beautiful woman who moves to a small town. She also happens to be a witch that is obsessed with the idea of men loving her and believes in the power of feminine allure. Arriving in this small town, she instantly is captivated by a variety of men, and sets out to seduce each and every one of them, looking for someone who will love her. Of course, she does this through dark witchcraft and through the use of potions and spells, she manages to acquire and lose three lovers, and she doesn’t quite understand how anyone wouldn’t love her, especially because she has so much love to give, as per her own admission.
The Love Witch is not necessarily a groundbreaking film in terms of story – honestly, the plot seems to be ripped right out of the trashy romance novels that plague bookstores. There is something about The Love Witch that makes it so unique and extraordinary though – the style the film was made in. I can’t quite explain it, because it has to be seen to be believed, but the film has the appearance of a 1960s thriller or melodrama – something that Mario Bava or late-period Michael Powell would make. Filmed in the same style, with garish costumes and elaborate production designs, it is simply the kind of aesthetic that cinema has lost – that artificial, campy appearance that defined films from over fifty years ago. The Technicolour glamour of this film, along with the gorgeous 35mm cinematography and brilliant set design just makes it an otherworldly experience in nostalgia.
Just everything about The Love Witch is just so utterly gorgeous – and while it may alienate viewers that aren’t used to this kind of visual flourish, it brings out the nostalgia of the films that I would often find on television, trashy but endlessly entertaining. It seems like Anna Biller (the director) has genuine adoration for this kind of nostalgia, because not only has she experimented with this kind of form before (in Viva, which came out in 2007), but she really went all the way in making The Love Witch as accurate and detailed as possible. One would not be judged for thinking this film was actually made in the 1960s – I certainly thought so on the first look.
The titular role is played by Samantha Robinson, who I have to say has such wonderful star quality. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, she is also incredibly talented and brings out the complexities in Elaine. This role really just required someone to be alluring and seductive, because that’s what the film called for. Yet, through the smallest nuances in her performance, Robinson creates such a complex and layered portrayal of the character, and we can’t help feeling an emotional connection to her. Robinson also knows how to balance the artifice from the realistic here – she doesn’t go all the way in terms of camp, but she also makes sure to avoid being completely subtle. A film like The Love Witch, which I don’t imagine will be very widely seen, may not be the film that will bring anyone into the mainstream, but I just hope that Robinson actually does get noticed by someone in the industry who can offer her bigger roles, because she displayed incredible talent her and it would be a shame for her natural charisma to go to waste and not be seen by more people.
Robinson, as I said, finds a perfect balance in this performance – but in regards of some of the other castmembers, I am not so sure if they were able to do the same. Laura Waddell is excellent at Trish, the married friend of Elaine that undergoes her own liberation after the suicide of her husband, who was having an affair with Elaine. The final confrontation between the two character is tense and palpable, but Trish is still a character I wanted to see more from (especially after her heartbreaking transformation towards the end). Jeffrey Vincent Parise also manages to hold his own, and probably comes the closest to matching Robinson in balanacing the real and the artificial, but he does go a bit too excessive at some points. Sadly, Gian Keys (who plays Griff, the detective and eventual final lover of Elaine) is either a terrible actor, or a dedicated prankster, because his performance here was just so bad – but in a film like this, we’d expect at least one terrible performance, and along with some other smaller performers in the film, Keys is just wooden and dull, but that isn’t much of a complaint because it really just contributed to the effect of this film as a throwback to previous eras.
Anna Biller is an extraordinarily wonderful artist and filmmaker, and she is a profound feminist – and I always enjoy seeing how feminism is represented in cinema, because there are some very unique and innovative ways that female filmmakers take over the industry. Now on the outset, this film seems very anti-feminist, as it is essentially about people believing that the only worth of a woman is through having a man who loves her, and serving as a companion rather than as an individual – but this film is deliberate in the way that it approaches the subject of feminism, because even though on the outset it appears to be completely contradictory to the beliefs of feminism (such as the character of Trish starting out as a strong-willed independent woman and then depreciating into a woman who believes that her feminine worth is only measured through being able to please her husband), but Biller makes a powerful statement towards the end of this film that shows that The Love Witch was anything but anti-feminist. It is a satirical and bold look at the mentality many hold, and the realizations that the main characters go through show just how sneakily innovative Biller is. I won’t spoil it, because it really is the best part of this film, but when that realization occurs, it is just so delightful and makes this film (which is a lot longer than it should’ve been – two hours is a long time for a film like this) absolutely worth it.
The Love Witch is certainly not for everyone – it is shocking, often vulgar and very risqué at some moments. It isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and it is far more of a film that will become a cult classic rather than a universally loved masterpiece. But for those that do end up seeking it out, it is such a complex and quirky little throwback to the 1960s, but more than that, it is a bold and powerful feminist statement, and while most of this film’s successes lie in the nostalgic value, it is still a wonderful little film and one that I am so glad was done so brilliantly.