The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)

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An enigmatic woman descends upon a town, drifting in like a sultry, slinking fog. She moves into a room in a Victorian mansion, where she cooks up home brews of potions and soaps, some of which she sells at the local hippie enclaves. Other mixtures end up in the bodies of lustful men who fall madly in love–or just simply go mad–for this femme fatale in knee high boots and miniskirts. This is Elaine. She’s the heroine of Anna Biller’s latest feminist phantasm, The Love Witch. It’s groovy and gaudy. It’s the second film of the year to track the doomed pursuit of love through the Tarot, the first being Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. A wallop of a double feature these two would make.

Inhabiting a world indebted to fables and Technicolor fantasies, The Love Witch is less The Feminine Mystique than the feminine mystical. Early on, a lovelorn Elaine is having tea with Trish, a happily married woman who tells her that the world is not like fairy tales. But later, on an idyllic date with a man under her spell, Elaine stumbles upon a renaissance fair and is treated like actual royalty. She stars in a mock wedding as the queen she longs to be. Never mind that the minstrels around her are not real (they moonlight as awkward, nude pagans), the world has finally bent to Elaine’s will.

The film lovingly delves into the world of Wiccans but it is an examination filtered through a winking, mascaraed eye. This tone is a delicate balance, especially for a subculture that is so easily mocked. Despite some perfectly calibrated jokes–the best being a horse named Patchouli–Biller succeeds by playing it straight on the surface. This is not parody. The more consistent source of laughs comes from the straight men (both definitions of the term apply) who pursue Elaine and succumb to her wicked desires. These men are Disney princes, not because they are idealized figures of masculine strength but because they are banal and at best two-dimensional. They are studs with names like Griff. They have never seen tampons before.

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Biller is an auteur whose greatest strengths come from her bold design and deft compositions. It’s the best of Wes Anderson without all of the insufferable stuff. Her credits in The Love Witch extend beyond writer/director/editor to encompass costume, set, and art design as well as the music. All of these elements are handled with the same care that Elaine shows when mixing up her alchemical potions. Cinema is Biller’s voodoo dollhouse. She is the goddess controlling not just all the men in the film, but Elaine and the stars and the moon.

 

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