Saturday, 7 November 2020

The Technicolor Magic Of The Love Witch

I wish I had seen Anna Biller's The Love Witch before compiling my Top Ten Movies Of The Decade last December, because it certainly would have been in contention for a spot. It's a beautiful, idiosyncratic, complex movie which visually harkens to the past while framing its traditional images and tropes from an entirely new perspective. In those respects the movie mirrors the nature of its heroine, Elaine, a witch who travels to a new town to find, through magical manipulation, a loving husband following the death, or her probably murder, of her former lover.

Elaine's hyper-traditional fantasies of love, wherein a woman submits herself entirely to her husband's needs in exchange for his devotion and affection, clash with both her suitors' and her own emotional reality. The magic she uses to ensure male adoration works too well, making them obsessively needy and completely unable to process the strength of feeling she draws out of them. This she finds hopelessly pathetic and she abandons them, leaving them to die in their entranced state either of longing or by their own hand while she goes in search of another prey to make adore her and heal her fractured psyche.

The Love Witch's aesthetic draws on a rich range of sources from the Technicolor'd past, from melodramas like All That Heaven Allows to Italian gialli and Marnie. If 'auteur theory', the idea that great directors make films with recurring themes and visual motifs which make a form of cinematic signature, was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, it will surely never find a truer subject than Anna Biller, who not only writes and directs, but edits, produces and is in charge of production design. Consequently, the film feels complete in its vision in a way few others do. It is eclectic and eccentric, contradictory and yet coherent in the way only a single person working through a collection of thoughts, feelings and passions can be.

Through Elaine, Biller explores the conflict between expectation and reality in ritualistic approaches to sex and love and its impact on women in particular. Elaine is shown to have plenty of non-magical power of her own, being a beautiful woman whom men turn around to admire as she walks down the street. Her expression of that natural feminine power is unfortunately reduced and channelled into forms determined from without. The old, male leader of the coven which inducted her into witch-hood is shown to sexually exploit his power under the guise of celebrating femininity. Her expectations of what love is seem to have been shaped not by her own desires, but by the social constrictions of, as her friend and landlord, Trish, would have it, the patriarchy.

Unlike most feminist depiction of witches, which show magical powers and potions as depictions of female power, here they are the tools by which Elaine's male-ruled coven control her natural power, which has no need of the often-destructive outside help she forces on it. It is only when Elaine cedes her natural seductive power to outside magic, out of fear of not achieving a ritualistically perfect ideal of love, that her dalliances start to go wrong.

Elaine is an appealingly complicated lead, played with immaculate control and composure by Samantha Robinson, who not only has the perfect look for a witch but also, in the classic Bewitched tradition, a beguilingly adorable nose. Though Elaine is fatally delusional from fantasies not of her own making, the desire behind her embrace of those fantasies represents genuine frustration at not being able to find real emotional connection. The men around her disappoint not only because they are any one of abusive, emotionally immature or unfaithful - even before magical intervention - but also because they are human, as flawed and dysfunctional as Elaine, who becomes disaffected with a man the instant he moves outside the po-faced, macho boundaries she imagines and run contrary to the devotion she longs for. Though the film is first and foremost about women, I suspect many men will recognise the pattern of a woman saying she wants a man who expresses his feelings then losing all interest in him when he does.

The psychology and subversions underpinning the film's story and characters justify its heightened Technicolor palette and arch dialogue, keeping them from falling into camp. There is no shortage of loving pastiche in Biller's compositions, but they exist as part of a wider vision of its own design, not existing simply to mock something else or be laughed at on its own. Elaine's stunning range of outfits and lingerie are over-the-top, but represent a sincere love of beautiful costuming and an expression of female power and self-determination independent of male desire. The film's visual inspiration from the melodramas and horror movies of the '60s is at once a genuine appreciation for the look of those movies, particularly their use of colour to reflect characters' emotional states, as well as a framing device on which to build a subversion of their politics.

The Love Witch is a singular, ornate creation which deserves more widespread recognition than it has received. There is much more in the film worthy of discussion than has been touched on in this article, particularly its use of tarot symbolism and spins on the often fetishistic depictions of pagan ritual in cinema history, but art this textured cannot and should not be summarised in words: it demands to be experienced in person.


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