This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival.
MONTREAL — The first thing that you notice about Anna Biller‘s “The Love Witch,” making its Canadian Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, is how strikingly beautiful of a movie it is. Shot on 35mm, its look is inspired by 1960s sexploitation and Technicolor melodramas. It is sumptuous in its eye-popping photography filled with relentless color and incredibly impressive and precise costume design.
Its plot of a modern-day witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson) that relentlessly, but good-hardheartedly, concocts magical spells to get men to fall in love with her, can seem like a throwaway compared to the actual, eye-candy imagery Biller has created. You wouldn’t be wrong, but what Biller is trying to create is a cinematic treatise very much akin to what Todd Haynes did with his Douglas Sirk inspired melodrama “Far From Heaven.” The beautiful, luscious colors are deceiving enough to make an audience believe that what they are seeing is total pastiche, but the underlying themes and resonances that lurk beneath tell a very different tale.
Elaine’s Gothic, Victorian-inspired apartment is an over-the-top treat. There are spell books and love potions being created all around the place. It makes for a hilariously messy environment, but one which subtly indicates the deranged mind of its titular character. She makes outlandish potions, sprinkles them with absurd spells and then goes out to find the next victim in her deadly web. We never truly know if the spells actually work or if she just picks up all these hapless male souls because, well, she’s quite easy on the eyes.
Most of the men Elaine meets are weak-minded fools that cannot handle the heavy, and proudly feminist image that comes with dating this kooky witch. Her aim is to get the perfect man, but not without getting what she truly wants. She will use sex, just like Scarlett Johansson‘s toxic UFO vixen all too easily did in “Under the Skin,” to seduce her male partners and get to her ubiquitous goal of male satisfaction. The sex scenes are ugly, misguided and completely awkward, purposely so, but they also end up revealing the true nature of many of its male characters. The sex brings out the hidden truths that the plasticized men she encounters have kept hidden from her until that very moment.
Newcomer Robinson is unusually impressive. She not only is perfect for the role with her good looks, but brings erotic, provocative, and never mean-spirited vibes to her character. She might be responsible for a few deaths, but Biller somehow finds a way to make Elaine likeable and not entirely responsible for the murders she has committed. Robinson certainly looks the part too, with her great outfits and striking blue eye make-up, with her performance veering between the sultry and the outrageous.
Much of the visual palette stems from the Technicolor thriller genre made popular back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. From the acting to the lighting to the compositions, Biller has pulled out quite the effort to make her film look, sound and feel like it was from a very distinct and particular era. She even directly uses music from Ennio Morricone‘s giallo soundtracks such as “The Fifth Cord“ and “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.” The fact that Biller has stated that the film is supposed to be set in modern times, and we do happen to catch a few people talking in cell phones, is an accomplishment in itself because never does it feel like your in present time when watching the film.
And even with all these technical accomplishments, “The Love Witch” still retains its feminist themes. Biller explores female fantasy in the most diabolical of ways imaginable and gender politics are dissected with a brutal honesty that could infuriate some feminists with its observations. Biller proves to be an auteur in the truest sense of the word: she directed, wrote, produced, and edited the film, and created many of the spectacular costumes and set decorations. She also, quite possibly, has created a new cult classic. [B+]