BLOGTOBER 10/22/17: THE LOVE WITCH
Am I the only person in the universe who actively hated this movie? Signs point to yes!
Writer/producer/editor/composer/art director/set designer/costumer/director Anna Biller’s homage to sexy ‘60s supernatural horror movies feels as long as it is pretentious, if not longer, and it is hard for me to say what anyone gets out of it other than a stiflingly studious imitation of the aforementioned film category. It is shot on 35, which I suppose is nice, but its eye-searing attempt to mimic Technicolor only produces an uncanny valley-like irritation at its not being the real thing, and if the movie’s aesthetic charms don’t woo you, then I would wager that its narrative nonsense won’t do the trick either. Even on paper, THE LOVE WITCH’s self-important attempt at fun-loving feminist discourse is a fucking slog.
…as this review will be, if I throw down every insult I can think of before getting to the point. The movie concerns the bewitching Elaine (Samantha Robinson), whose recently-widowed status may be of her own making. She is, of course, a witch, who devotes her craft entirely to the procurement of the perfect lover. Unfortunately, every man who falls under her spell becomes weak and pathetic unto death, so Elaine has her work cut out for her. She’ll have to combat jealous women, dirty cops, and her own obnoxious naivete to achieve her dream.
While satirizing psychedelic soft porn should be pretty broad-side-of-a-barn for an academic like Biller, not enough meaning comes from any of THE LOVE WITCH’s antics, and far too much screen time is taken up by attempts to convince the viewer of its authenticity, both formal and textual. While the movie is often well-dressed, it lacks the visual inventiveness that could keep a two hour genre study (or any of the original movies being studied here) alive and kicking. Its kaleidoscopic images of nude or semi-nude enchantresses* are punctuated only by interminable monologues about wicca worthy of your least favorite college roommate, and shrill ugly renaissance faire sequences that eat up a truly shocking amount of time. Also frustrating are the movie’s dull, convoluted gender politics. Biller seems to enjoy positioning women as the stronger sex, describing men as so affected by femininity that they actually expire from neediness. At the same time, though, Elaine is the sort of idiot who believes that she wants “love”, but who is repulsed by affection, and attracted only to a man who is capable of resisting and deceiving her for the short term goal of accessing her body. This kind of terminally negative attitude about Men and Women is a lot more fun when it comes from sourpusses like Catherine Breillat and Lars Von Trier, whose films are at least technically stimulating and often surprising. It’s difficult to look forward to Elaine’s next morbid misadventure, when we know it’s just going to result in spending a lot of time with the kinds of insipid crybabies that even the Love Witch can’t stand.
*(Why in the midst of this endless flesh parade does Biller insist on the comic value of hiding Elaine’s nipples behind her hair? Is she trying to lampoon two different kinds of movies at the same time? It’s just confusing)
I should say that I’m not fundamentally against this kind of exercise. I am a champion of the films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Even if they outstay their welcome by a certain margin, AMER and THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS both offer visually stunning, atmospherically immersive, and narratively intriguing tributes to the giallo genre that are intermittently just as exciting as some of the better films on which they are based. Those films also at least attempt to challenge the traditionally misogynist giallo attitude; when asked knee-jerk questions about the violence against women in STRANGE COLOUR, they noted that a male character suffered at least as badly or worse, for each female victim in the film. I believe Biller has ignored similar creative opportunities with THE LOVE WITCH. She might have placed Elaine’s male victims under an exploitative female gaze, for instance, especially considering the actual plot of the film, but she never makes more of these men, visually or spiritually, than your average AIP biker movie might require. Instead, we get dullsville burlesque routines where anonymous fan dancers are described by dusty old warlocks as inherently powerful due to their sex appeal. Slow news day, I guess.
That said, maybe it really is news to many viewers, that there have been movies made in our world that were entirely driven by shallow sexuality, and that moreover, many people in the world are entirely driven by shallow sexuality. As of the time of writing, THE LOVE WITCH has a startling 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. I can only reconcile this with what I saw on the screen by assuming that there is a kind of echo chamber effect in play: People love hearing unchallenging descriptions of what they already believe (“Fucked up people fuck people they hate, and aren’t we all a little fucked up?”), and they especially love hearing reassurances about things they think they know (are dumb) but don’t actually have much real experience with–see: the success of the SCREAM series. That is, I would bet that many of critics and audiences are no experts on Jess Franco or Jean Rollin or the other directors whose work is referenced by THE LOVE WITCH, but Anna Biller’s reductive impression of these kinds of films just feels right, and so it is assumed to be worthy of its accolades. The only reassurance I’m receiving from this picture, other than that people are assholes I guess, is my increasingly passionate plea for the horror demimonde to bring back crones. I don’t know what’s next on the horizon for Ms. Biller, but I’m saving up my ticket-buying allowance for THE HATE WITCH.
Johnny Ryan, Angry Youth Comix #10