It stars Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a love witch with a troubled past who moves to a new town to work on her art and continue her pursuit for true love. She uses her powers and potions to put men under her spell, but continues to run into problems when their love for her consumes them. All the while, the police close in on her as they uncover her suspected crimes.
This film is quite the experience. Firstly, it looks incredible visually – with bright colours styled thematically in each setting, and a filming style so authentically vintage, right down to the shot composition, image quality and angelic lighting, the detail is mind boggling. Biller perfectly recreates movies of old, but does so in a thoroughly modern, parodic way – it’s nostalgia is the very thing that makes it feel so fresh.
Samantha Robinson is iconic in the starring role. Not only does she look the part – all big brown eyes, pixie like features and long dark wig turning her into the most beautiful witchy creature – but she pulls off all the exaggerated, cartoonish emotions required of the character perfectly, from naive to seductive to slightly manic.
The Love Witch has had a great reception from feminist circles in particular, with it being written and directed by a woman and showing witches taking back the power from the men in their life, but to us the feminist messages in there felt hard to find.
In this interview with Vice, Biller says that “Elaine represents two things. One is the fear of female sexuality and female power. The other is the strength that women feel when they own their sexuality and allure.” She talks about how men and women react to the film differently – men tending to talk about the visuals, and disregarding the moments that are perhaps most emotionally potent for female viewers.
There’s somewhat of a dichotomy in what this film is trying to say. On the one hand, it’s clear to see the feminist statements – mockery of men who have an unrealistic ideal of women, Elaine talking about taking back power from men after hints of an abusive past (though these questions are never answered), random explanatory monologues about the patriarchy and witchy rituals including a used tampon.
But on the other hand, Elaine seems to be perpetuating old fashioned patriarchal notions (though she’s called out on it by her friend Trish), there’s a distinctly creepy male power figure, and the film feels like it’s made very much from the perspective of the male gaze.
It plays a lot with the male projected ideal of a woman who will do anything they want sexually, who represents excitement and an alternative to married life – and explores how Elaine reacts negatively when the men become so obsessed with her, a narrative that has so often been shown with the genders reversed. Elaine seems to both embody the patriarchal expectations of her, yet reject them at the same time.
Whilst The Love Witch does well in regards to sparking feminist debates, it’s just a shame that the method of storytelling does so in such a frustrating fashion. You’re watching her seduce these men and weirdly waiting for the other shoe to drop – she can’t just be the femme fatale? Surely it’s trying to say something more than that? The reveal you’re hoping for never comes, and just as a climax begins to build, the film comes to an abrupt end.
Maybe this is what Anna Biller was going for, and obviously anything created by a woman shouldn’t have to be an explicit feminist manifesto; but this film’s reputation and label as a horror felt misleading, and left a sense of confusion rather than empowerment. The only moments of horror come seconds before the credits roll, and the rest feels more like a supernatural love story with the odd thriller element thrown in.
There’s moments of genius throughout The Love Witch, but they’re interspersed between sections that are just plain weird, and, unfortunately, kinda dull. Surrealism is pushed to the limit and it becomes so odd in places that you end up just wishing for it to be over.
The Love Witch gets 3 stars – you can’t help but appreciate the visual mastery and nostalgic authenticity, and it would get the full 5 for the subtle feminist nods and true originality, but overall the storytelling feels just too frustrating and uneven.
Despite a perhaps average star rating, The Love Witch is definitely worth a watch – if only to hear more perspectives on it. Have a look at the trailer below, and click here to buy it on DVD.