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With its stilted acting, threadbare plot, and mismatched styles, The Love Witch has all the hallmarks of a terrible movie. On first glance, it looks like one of those quasi-feminist B-movies in which an objectified vixen takes revenge on her oppressors. It sort of is that movie, but it’s also much more. A toxic brew of horror film, melodrama, and exploitation flick, the striking new film by Anna Biller (who wrote, produced, directed, and edited) is an entertaining deconstruction of cultural norms and gender roles. If we’re all puppets beholden to our cultural maker, Biller has a helluva time showing us the strings.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a modern-day witch, meaning she doesn’t ride a broom or have a wart on her nose. She’s a sexy, young woman who uses spells and potions to get what she wants, and she only wants one thing: love. After poisoning her husband for reasons unknown, she arrives in a small California town looking for a fresh start. She has a rough go of things. She lures a man to a cabin in the woods, where she seduces him with such vigor that he dies of heart failure. It wasn’t the hallucinogenic drugs she gave him. No, no: He died of love.
If you’re prone to acid flashbacks, watch out. Although it takes place in contemporary times (note the cell phones), Biller films the proceedings with a day-glo palette that resembles the Technicolor movies of a bygone era. So do the modish costumes and garish set design. Everything seems like a dream, or at least a construct. The colors are brighter than they are in life. It doesn’t take too much drifting to get lost in Elaine’s blood-red dress or her icy-blue eyeshadow.
That’s exactly what happens to the men in her life. She mistakes sex for love and seduces them so ferociously that they can’t function without her. Her second victim is a downtrodden businessman who fancies a passionate love affair to give him sweet escape from his boring marriage. When a handsome, square-jawed detective comes sniffing around asking Elaine about her first victim, she turns the tables on him, and soon they are getting married in a bizarre pagan ceremony.
You’ll notice that the characters are archetypes from another era: the horny hippie, the bored husband, and the straight-laced, by-the-book police officer. Even our heroine subscribes to a regressive view of gender relations, offering sex, nurturing, and total fulfillment of the needs of her male counterparts. Of course, it doesn’t work. Getting what they want kills them, and Biller’s film ultimately becomes a criticism of the gender role that its heroine lives by.
And so the amateurish acting and hilariously retro characterization serves to build a bridge from the past to the present and, perhaps, to indicate that the feminist battles of the counterculture are hardly settled today. I’m pretty sure we knew that—if memory serves, we may have even received some evidence of it last week—but another lesson, particularly one this beautiful and engaging, couldn’t hurt.
The Love Witch opens Friday at E Street Cinema.