Nov 25, 2016

In Theaters: The Technicolor-Hued Sorcery of The Love Witch

The Love Witch, now in theaters, will get a lot of attention for its brightly-colored retro look, but it is perhaps most striking for the way it revels in the rarely explored female point of view. A visual throwback with modern ideas about love, romance and their navigation by women and men, it doesn't rely as much on its images as it could, but is a memorable, carefully-crafted work by the meticulous cinematic woman-of-all-trades Anna Biller (Viva).

It is a horror film, with black comic touches, about Elaine (Samantha Robinson) a glamorous witch who is desperately in search of love and not afraid to cast a few spells to find it. With a destructive understanding of sexual politics, she murders disappointing lovers, all of whom can't handle the consequences of getting everything they think they want from this perfect dream of erotic femininity. Her traveling companions include men with square jaws to do Russ Meyer proud, perfectly groomed ladies with steely backbones and a cheery interior designer who finds herself in the unfortunate position of being the only person with a firm grasp on reality.

The look of The Love Witch is as pleasurable as a Technicolor musical or a Hammer horror film. Bright with carefully coordinated reds, blues and pinks, to watch it is to feel your eyes open a little wider and your senses engage with more intensity. It has a warm, rich look, partially due to being filmed on 35mm film, but in several scenes it is clear that expert lighting and filtration are at play as well. This is no doubt thanks to the work of seasoned cinematographer M. David Mullen (Mad Men, Jennifer's Body).

Biller has made decisions about visuals that feel precise and deliberate: in an early scene, Elaine exits her red Ford Mustang with a matching red suitcase, bag and cigarette case, while flashing perfectly-manicured red nails. The color scheme telegraphs her erotic power, but to behold it is a pleasure in itself. Sometimes it's just exciting to enjoy perfectly composed details.

I found the same pleasure in the beautifully executed costumes, all found or made by Biller. There are swinging mini dresses, high-necked lace gowns, silky underwear and wigs galore.

There's so much to love here: beauty, some amusingly quirky acting that is sure to please fans of classic film, an effectively menacing soundtrack (a mix of Biller's compositions and music from classic Italian horror films), and a narrative that is refreshingly female.

If only the message of The Love Witch wasn't spelled out in such excessively explicit detail. There is liberal use of voiceover narrative; which sometimes works brilliantly, but is often unnecessary, because the visuals are strong enough to communicate the message on their own. There is also a long explanation of sex magick and feminine power by a warlock and his witch friend that tries the patience and nearly takes the zing out of a zesty burlesque club scene where what is said is already being expressed perfectly with images. There is an overall feeling that Biller doesn't know her own power to communicate visually.

Biller does transmit her message though, and she uses a deliciously female visual language incorporating things like Elizabeth Taylor-level green eyeshadow, a tampon soaked with menstrual fluid and the most traditionally feminine adornments. 

She has also found a remarkable messenger in Samantha Robinson, whose performance as the lovelorn Elaine is a triumph of confidence and commitment. The actress constructs a flawless, supernaturally beautiful shell, while subtly revealing the narcissistic rot and madness at her core.

The film is an unique experience, unusually luxurious in the way that it has been so carefully executed, but rarely stifled by the precision of those preparations. It is artfully conceived and faithful to its message in a manner rarely seen in the business of film. This is clearly the triumph of Biller whose belief in her craft, and ability to execute her vision, makes me feel hopeful for the future of cinema.

Many thanks to Oscilloscope for providing access to the film.

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