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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.23.16]

Anna Biller’s highly stylized comic homage to Hitchcock and Sirk era technicolour melodramas and 1960s erotic art-house horror is the kind of film you only really see at a festival. (I mean, just read that sentence back!) It’s pretty easy to recommend for sheer entertainment value and just plain outrageousness, although at two hours in length it occasionally feels baggy and unfocused.

The film has some extremely funny moments, generally borne out of the deliberately awkward acting, cheesy dialogue and imaginative costumes and sets, but there's an undercurrent to the story confronting the sticky subject of gender stereotypes and female empowerment – albeit in a light-hearted way. Overall the film feels a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the ideas hit their targets while others feel laboured or self-indulgent, sitting amidst scenes which simply last too long and would have been better trimmed or left on the cutting room floor altogether. It’s a unique film and Biller’s dedication to her vision is genuinely admirable, so while it’s not perfect, it is absolutely worth checking out.

The love witch of the title is Elaine (Samantha Robinson), an enigmatic, vampish young woman who exists in a kind of bizarro retro-world in which ‘50s and ‘60s culture and fashion sit alongside computers and smart phones. Elaine is on the run from San Francisco, fleeing an unspecified ‘bad scene’ back in the city in order to settle in the small town of Eureka. Here she can work on her paintings, sell her spiritual artefacts to the local apothecary, and practice her own brand of witchcraft – which mainly involves plying eligible men with her often deadly love potion. She meets perky housewife and interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell), who shows her around town and takes her to the local Victorian tearoom. Elaine confesses her fantasy, to be swept off her feet by a real man, someone to whom she can selflessly give her love and admiration forever.

Elaine firmly believes that a woman ought to make her man feel like the most important person in the world, and although Trish is quietly horrified by her outdated values (“You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!”), Elaine is determined to fulfil her dream of finding her prince charming. To this end, she begins to seduce various men around town, starting with a bohemian university professor with a passion for libertine literature. While her magic potions might be good for a night of passionate love-making, the long-term effects include obsession, leading to monumental depression and usually death in one form or another. It’s not long before hunky police detective Griff (Gian Keys) is on the case, but will he too fall under Elaine’s spell, or is true love stronger than magic?

For anyone intrigued by the idea of a period comedy in the style of a ‘50s melodrama, there is so much to enjoy here. The sets are simply incredible, with an attention to detail that rivals anything Hollywood could muster. The film is full of visual gags and deadpan comedy which the audience in attendance clearly enjoyed. Biller references films such as Marnie, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Romero’s Season of the Witch and (if I’m not mistaken) Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. It’s certainly evident that The Love Witch owes as much to the style of Italian giallo aesthetics as it does to Hitchcock, at least in terms of exaggerated drama and suspense, modernist design elements and use of colour. (Robinson also appears a dead ringer for the great Edwige Fenech.) The world in which the characters reside is one in which witches and warlocks are basically accepted as part of the status quo, and I really dug the idea of this individualized spirituality as part of everyday life, even if it only really serves as a plot contrivance. It’s a world in which I’d happily spend a week, just for the fashions, the groovy music and the far out happenings.

Unlike other contemporary comedies which play post-modern games with nostalgia, Biller’s film makes great effort to establish itself as its own complete and distinctive story, rich in symbolism and allegorical allusions. The only real issues with the film stem from the shaky marriage between the comic elements and the underlying message of the film. Billed in the ever unreliable festival guide as a feminist critique (and erroneously described as a sexploitation spoof) the film does contain some pointed satire, yet this sits somewhat uncomfortably with the larger-than-life characters and goofy humour. Occasionally it feels as though Biller is sacrificing one for the other, consistency for substance, as when Elaine’s friend, a fellow witch, delivers a long (too long) soliloquy about women’s mystical power over men. In another film this would have had more meaning, but within the confines of a film which, from the opening scenes, encourages us not to take it seriously, it seems rather ill-placed. In attempting to bypass the problem of being ‘just another spoof’ by asserting itself in this way, the film abandons its bonkers humour in exchange for something wry, more edgy, and this leaves us a little bemused as a result. I suppose it’s a case of not quite being able to have your cake, though I still applaud Biller’s efforts here even if it doesn’t quite work.

I imagine that anyone reading this review has already decided whether or not this film is for them. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be put off giving it a shot due to some nitpicking over tone. I laughed far more during the screening of The Love Witch than during the last few mainstream comedy movies I’ve seen combined. That’s definitely worth something.

Recommended Release: Rosemary's Baby

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Mordock (2 years ago) Reply

The audience at BAMcinemafest understood that while this film had funny moments, it was not a comedy and they had no problems with the tone becoming serious. This movie is in fact a tragedy, and if you're so amused and roaring with laughter all the way through that you're insensitive to that, it's not a flaw in the film but in the viewer. From the very first moments of the film she talks in voiceover about her abuse and mental illness, and we see disturbing scenes of bondage and death. I don't know what your life experience has been, but most people would not take those details to be elements of a farce. To some people, rear-projection photography or a pretty girl driving down the road is hilarious, but I guess it depends on how closely you want to interact with a text.


projectcyclops (2 years ago) Reply

I didn't laugh during the serious moments, and neither did the audience. This is what I meant by being left 'bemused' by them. It has absolutely nothing to do with insensitivity towards the material, and everything to do with the lack of consistency in tone - which is what I took issue with.

I stand by my observations. Attempts to weave controversial themes into a camp genre film doesn't work here. The film is well-made and has amusing moments, but it fails to properly address its themes, and this is due to the uneasy combination of laughs and serious undertones.

I'm glad to hear it worked for you - but I can only state my own opinion on this. That's what film criticism is, and there's no need for an accusatory attitude.

If you lighten up, you'll be more fun at parties.


Mordock (2 years ago) Reply

What I'm saying is that it's perfectly possible to take the film seriously from the beginning,and if you do that, there isn't any awkward mismatch in tone. I agree that there are a few funny moments, but again the tone is set up from the beginning to be demonic with the opening credits and is consistently so throughout the movie. I think the problem is that you're looking at it as a camp genre film to begin with, which I don't think fits it at all all.


projectcyclops (2 years ago) Reply

I agree completely that there's more to the film than meets the eye, but it seems too wrapped-up in it's own presentation and extraordinary characters for the audience to fully appreciate what's going on beneath the surface.

I think Biller undermines her own good intentions a little. She has such a distinct style and tone to her films (and the visual design and humour are absolutely at the forefront - there is no getting around this) so the darker, or more social/political elements become obscured. The opening credits may have been menacing, but from the get-go the character interactions are deliberately awkward and stilted (and funny). So audiences are bound to recognize the film, at least initially, as a camp genre piece. It's hard to disengage from that impression and view it as something with more depth.

I suppose it simply comes down different impressions, but mine was of a larger-than-life genre film which struggled to get its underlying themes across, while nevertheless impressing with it's humour and style. I'd still recommend the movie, no doubt about that.


Wumpus (1 year ago) Reply

I watched this yesterday and I think you're *both* right. It probably plays better as a mostly-tragedy than a mostly-comedy, but it is hard to take the tragedy *too* seriously when the main character is both powerful and deluded.

I liked it! It reminded me of Young Adult, honestly; but this was more stylish, thoughtful, and imaginative. I wish it had more of that film's focus, though.

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