15.3.17

The Love Witch

A film seven years in the making, with the director Anna Biller also taking charge of the writing, editing, set design, wardrobe and props. The care taken over the mise en scène is extraordinary – every bit as impressive as the creations of other detail-driven film-makers like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. Biller's world-building makes very few concessions to reality, up to and including the eye-popping Technicolour and stilted acting – a nod to films of the 50s and earlier. But is this visual feast meant to please, or unsettle?

I was getting mixed messages. On the one hand, Biller seems to want to provide female viewers with the enjoyment of watching their fantasies on screen – cute clothes, dashing men, driving red convertibles across California. On the other hand, the OTT girlishness is difficult to take seriously, or at face value. You're not supposed to buy into it in the way you do with Baz Luhrmann or Sex and the City. It's all a bit too fake, too clumsy.

That audience distancing is to the film's purpose, which is to comment on and undercut the world-view of the main character, who is basically a Lana Del Ray figure with a propensity to murder. Elaine is a witch who uses spells to make men fall obsessively in love with her – although the rituals are only the half of it. Most of her allure is down to her willingness to transform herself into a compliant and available male fantasy.



Biller has done her research on assorted pagan and wicca subcultures, but her portrayal of this religion is not flattering. The coven in the film is led by a man, who is basically a creep. He delivers a long lecture on the power of female sexuality to two young girls, who end up dancing provocatively for the enjoyment of old men in a burlesque club. He also gropes Elaine, and there are hints that he used his status as the head of a cult to sexually harass or even rape her in the past. It's therefore difficult to take his advocacy of female empowerment seriously. Biller elsewhere has made the argument that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was incomplete – women may be freer to express their sexuality, but the form and purpose of that expression is still shaped by men. 

Elaine's preoccupation with having men adore her is insatiable. There is an emptiness at her core which requires the constant approval and love of other people. As well as the possible rape by the creepy warlock, Biller reveals that Elaine was (at least verbally) abused by her father. Throughout her life, she has faced demands to be desirable, and seems to have been punished when she is not. Her 'sex magic' is a way to reassert herself using the only thing she has been told she has of value. There is no glory or satisfaction in it. Biller's femme fatale is just an object that stabs back.

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