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film review: the love witch


Lip‘s Jessie Adams recently attended an exclusive season of The Love Witch at Melbourne’s Lido Cinemas. Check out her review below.

Anna Biller’s second feature film The Love Witch weaves a kaleidoscopic spell in genuine 35mm colour film cinematography, conjuring complicated visions of feminine archetypes, gender politics, and sumptuous 1960s occult fashion and film aesthetics.

The film opens on the titular witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) driving a candy red convertible along a winding countryside to a soundtrack of trembling, eerie violins. She wears red, she is smoking, her eyes are perfectly made up in shimmering, Elizabeth Taylor-esque teal eye shadow. ‘I am starting a new life’, she says. She appears to be the ultimate modern woman: independent, stylish, mobile. But the young woman is haunted by her past. ‘I still have intrusive thoughts. My therapist told me I’m not unusual at all.’

Our leading lady arrives at a gothic San Francisco mansion and makes the acquaintance of interior designer Trish (Laura Waddell). Trish is modest, married, plain and civilised in a prim pink suit. She is conventional, and private in her sexuality. The juxtaposition of Trish and Elaine speaks to a common feminine doubling often seen in female friendships in pop culture: the plain best friend and the wild, energetic narcissist. I could see myself reflected in both characters, and I think a lot of women would experience a similar sense of recognition.

Trish kindly welcomes Elaine by taking her to a Victorian tea room for cake and talk. In a romantic, rose pink restaurant the two women compare notes on men. Elaine claims to have the ‘formula’ that has solved the problems of love between men and women. All men need, she says simply and ironically, is ‘just a pretty woman to love, to take care of them, to give them total freedom in whatever they want to do or be’. Trish, indignant at the extent to which women are expected to sacrifice themselves, cries ‘but what about what we want? You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy; your whole self-worth is wrapped up in pleasing a man’.

Even for Elaine, a witch with powers to manipulate and engineer the world around her, pleasing men is an enormous, ongoing and elaborate exercise. Love, for women, is work. A woman must be both a mother and a lover, and sexually attractive to men at all times. Elaine’s rigorous beauty regime is presented in detail: her vanity table with its numerous vials and instruments, her exquisite lingerie, her wide lashes, fake black wig, and artfully, painstakingly applied mask of makeup feature in several scenes. Beauty, too, is work.

Despite the labour required, women are continually told that the appropriate feminine costume will ‘open the flood gates of love’. Women must truly be monsters, such is the necessity of beauty to ‘destroy his fear of you’. Women who are unable, or unwilling, to soften themselves for men’s desires become spinsters, pitied, without the love of men, powerless. Elaine’s compulsive need for men speaks to the fact that a romantic relationship is still considered a defining feature of women’s worth and power. Even witches require the romantic approval of men to survive.

Romantic love is a vehicle for power, but power aside, Elaine also longs for a man who will see her ‘as a human being’ rather than a doll. The men around her continually disappoint her in her search. Sexually and emotionally abused by key men in her life, including her father, her ex-husband (who she poisons to death), and the repulsive, “feminist” leader of her coven, Elaine finds no comfort in her lovers with their endless demands. ‘Men are like children’, she muses, rather than her vision of a kind, brave and capable Prince Charming.

Supposedly, love magic enables Elaine to ‘take from them what I need, and not the other way around’. But, the film asks, does treating men as they have treated women really satisfy or soothe our pain, “empower” us, or does such behaviour simply perpetuate cycles of abuse, to self and others? Elaine’s sexual unions quickly collapse upon consummation. Her men are driven mad, they sicken and die from her sex magic in a gory pantomime of love’s demise. The formula doesn’t work. And the cycle begins again.

The Love Witch explores the complexities of heterosexual romance with a rich psychedelic vision, crackling with sumptuous costumes and stunning sets. Anna Biller is not only the director of the film – she also handmade a lot of the wardrobe and props, and her work is a technical triumph.

Keep an eye out for Elaine’s signature black coat, lined with technicolour rainbows. As a costume, it is a wonderfully poignant symbol for the mysterious outer self that Elaine presents to the world and the sensitive, creative, violent inner self she conceals. Despite her dream to ‘give [him] the rainbow’, her desire for love under such conditions can only end darkly, in estrangement and despair.

Jessie Adams is a Melbourne-based photographer who loves cinema. Catch her at the Nova on Mondays, or on Instagram @theriverthe_rain.

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