Ravishingly crafted, and richly observed, writer-director Anna Biller’s The Love Witch – a romanticised broth of fizzingly gothic Americana – harps back to an era filled with the very good, and the very bad. Serving in virtually every primary role, from music composition, to production design; via editing, and costume, this is clearly a passion project for the lavish creative, and her enthusiasm and plentiful knowledge is on the brightest display throughout. This pulpy, psychosexual trip is unlike anything else on the market at current, and despite a number of issues throughout, it serves as a vigorous injection of pure cinema.
Biller’s baby is a claret-tinted reflection of a niche period in studio filmmaking – the late 60s Technicolor melodrama – in addition to the schlocky novellas which peppered displays in motels and gas stations. Themes of sex, violence, and marital misdemeanours rendered narratives within the horror and thriller genres; offering viewers and readers the cheapest of shocks and spills like say “Fifty Shades of Grey” provides today. The Love Witch understands the macabre fantasy of such a timeframe, and develops quite frankly unbelievable aesthetic texture within it. Because this film, at its very essence, is a gloriously tongue-in-cheek pastiche first, and a narrative feature second. Perhaps even third or fourth in the pecking order.
As previously mentioned, Biller isn’t just harnessing a story within a setting; she is mimicking the entire process of filmmaking. Her latest is absolutely laden with horrible editing choices, such as the dreaded zoom, in addition to ludicrous plot contrivances which make absolutely no sense, and defy any sort of continuity. Her actors are deliberately giving timber-thick wooden performances – so stiff and awkward that on occasion it is difficult to work out what’s the act, and what’s the act of an act. Plus there is the cheaply implemented usage of hazy bordering; something that even a teenage video editor using Windows Movie Maker would grimace at. All of this sounds like a serious dig at The Love Witch, but on the contrary. These peculiar visual cues are beautifully showcased and understood, assisting the landscape and design of the film. Ultimately they characterise it more so than the storyline.
Perhaps the most impressive quality here is how subtly Biller manages to curate modern references in a film so unashamedly unsubtle. Similar to the manner in which Damien Chazelle uses clues to remind audiences that his La La Land actually exists in present day, not the 1950s, The Love Witch beats to a equal drum. You are almost adamant that this is a work of a forgotten time – heck, even the font is as archived as they come – and yet something finite brings you back to 2017. A quick sight of a BMW M5 pulling up curb-side, or the drawing of an iPhone from a gown so vintage it’ll likely be heaped with fifty years of dust in your attic. These tiny, but significant, gestures are treasures to be discovered, and consequently show Biller’s smarts.
However, not everything is as rose-tinted as it seems. Let’s get real for a moment: this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, far from it in fact. Whilst the singularity of Biller’s film is certainly impressive, many-a-viewer will be longing for more than a fanciful façade. There is virtually no narrative to the satisfying beyond our stunningly gorgeous seductress Eliane (Samantha Robinson) moving to a witch-friendly suburb where she enchants men with her rich love potions. Unfortunately, her expertise mean her bewitching brews are far too potent, leading to death from a heart so full. A wafer-thin narrative such as this would be digestible if presented across a snappy runtime – say 80-90 minutes maximum – but at two hours, there just isn’t enough drama to sustain. Embellishments are all well and good, but style is no substitute for substance.
Perhaps deliberately, perhaps not, no single fellow cast member is ever as interesting or textured as Eliane. Sure, she is the star of the project – our enchanting antihero who is absolutely perfect for the role (Robinson’s shimmering beauty really could melt the heart of man) – but it is very hard to care about anyone in her direct contact. The male counterparts are undercooked, and the counteracting females even limper. The Love Witch might be the Robinson show, but there rarely seems to be a single attempt from the script to support her, and indeed our connections to her world.
Still, despite its flaws, Biller has crafted something impressively audacious, and although it is bound to polarise, will ultimately be remembered for its tenacity and independence. The attention to detail is more than admirable, and the solo vision of the film makes it a refreshing burst from the mundanities of modern multiplex fodder.
The Love Witch opens in select UK cinemas on 10th March, and is available to purchase on Blu-ray and DVD from 13th March.