With The Love Witch, writer-director Anna Biller evinces her understanding of every element in a 1950s or ’60s-era Technicolor production—whether it’s a Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minelli film, a Roger Corman adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, or a forgettable B picture—as either implicitly or explicitly pertaining to sex. The forceful fullness of Technicolor merges with the repressive cultural values of its era to forge an aesthetic that’s simultaneously forward and demure, yielding a head-spinning subtextual neurosis that most modern filmmaking can’t hope to recapture, with its uninhibited and taken-for-granted access to the profane. (Though, considering the conservative political winds of change that are blowing, artists may have to return to such coded evasion.) Technicolor is an inherently overheated palette, refuting the faux-realism that mars contemporary cinema, embracing unhinged emotionality as a gateway to visceral pleasure and perhaps profundity. Technicolor, like German expressionism, is cinema gushing right out of the tap, owning up to the medium’s origins as a method of fetishism.
If Biller had merely fetishized Technicolor, even this expertly, The Love Witch would be incomplete. The filmmaker bathes her frames in primary reds, blues, yellows, and browns, but she also infuses her film with totemic sensuality. The opening credit citing Biller as the set and costume designer is as important as her billing as the writer and director, as the subtly obvious sets abound in fleeting explosions of the sex that’s frustrated in the text. The sets are strewn with color-coordinated knickknacks, and with erotic paintings and statues, with beakers, test tubes, garters, and candles. The actors look eerily right for the late 1950s and early ’60s, the men with wavy hair, granite jaws, and accommodatingly blank and entitled expressions, the women with their ripe or repressed femininity (depending on whether they’re a temptress or plain Jane), and their flat, Stepford Wife inflection.
When the titular witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), strips for a man, emulating the burlesque shows that are eventually revealed to be a pivotal part of her story, the textures of her scarf and garter are as pointedly arousing as the colors and contours of her iconic body. Desserts are emphasized by Biller with a carnality that also rivals Elaine’s allure, as she rhymes sex and violence with immaculate pastries and sauces, as well as with the fashion, the objects, and the geometric oddness of certain rooms. A piece of chocolate cake is so mouth-wateringly delectable (and erotic) that it nearly throws one of out of the narrative. Sex and sugar have a similarity beyond their sensuality, after all, as they both exacerbate the hunger they’re supposed to sate—and this very hunger imbues The Love Witch with primordial force.
Biller’s fetishism flows from a sensitivity to how film tropes inadvertently reveal longing. There isn’t a portion of an aging Technicolor melodrama that Biller has left unmined, but she disrupts her spell in controlled alternating bursts, occasionally letting in contemporary explicitness as a means of highlighting the emotion that’s otherwise coded in the film’s aesthetic. The Love Witch isn’t technically set in the past, but in a present that’s rooted in a self-conscious movie-lover’s horny imagination. The opening sequence follows Elaine as she drives along West Coast cliffs, eluding a troubled past, looking for a fresh start in the tradition of cinematic black widows. She’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, a mysterious full-lipped brunette, and Biller drinks that beauty in, matching Elaine’s fabulous red dress with her red lipstick and red convertible, and, later, a red luggage trunk. Biller suspends us in a deep spell of objectification, only to break it briefly but decisively when Elaine arrives into town and casually passes an unmistakably contemporary BMW.
This sort of coitus interruptus frequently occurs in the dialogue as well, which merges ’50s-era presentational stiffness with 2000s-era talk of patriarchy and feminism. In one scene, Elaine breaks hilariously from her role as the embodiment of all heteronormative male fantasies to call her lover a “pussy” in voiceover, as he’s failing to provide her with the male cliché that corresponds with the obliging fuck toy that she’s presented herself as to him. Elaine believes in gender roles: She’ll be an obliging housewife by day and a tornado in the sack by night, but she expects her man to be the perfect Ken to her Barbie. In her way, Elaine isn’t as regressive as she initially appears to be, as she expects both man and woman to honor a contract rooted in myth.
The Love Witch has an artisanal intensity that prevents it from turning into a smug and predictable exercise in political revision. At its root, it’s drunk on its own texture above any and all meaning that can be ascribed to it. Like Elle, the film isn’t resolved about the function of gender roles, as it owns the fact that repressiveness is a disreputable turn-on. Objectification, especially now, is so forbidden and verboten that it represents a pathway toward an animalistic state. Elaine is imprisoned by her hungers, which represent her self-loathing, but said hungers also occasionally set her free from her cage. This is an impossible paradox, not only of sex, but of life as American society has conceived it. We’re a series of preconditions that are perpetually at internal war. The Love Witch is an earnest and haunting dramatization of this war. Appropriately, it’s both a pastry and a dildo—dipped in acid.