Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2017) waxes poetic about the 1960s, sporting an aesthetic that pays tribute to the iconic low-budget horror films of the period. The aspect ratio is altered, the lens is rose-coloured and overwhelmingly pastel, and the voice of our female lead Elaine drips with honey like an incantation, in the style of the quintessential Hollywood actresses of her time.
content warning: mentions of blood, violence, sex, misogyny and suicide
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2017) waxes poetic about the 1960s, sporting an aesthetic that pays tribute to the iconic low-budget horror films of the period. The aspect ratio is altered, the lens is rose-coloured and overwhelmingly pastel, and the voice of our female lead Elaine drips with honey like an incantation, in the style of the quintessential Hollywood actresses of her time. Everything is delicately assembled and set up, creating the perfect backdrop for her. At a time when conversations about feminism and equality were peaking, Elaine is a woman who simply wants to embody love, and thinks this means serving a man and loving him wholly. The film almost mocks her for it, with friends calling her ‘brainwashed’, but she’s too far gone to heed their words, holding onto some hopeful notion of being loved back. The film plays like one big woozy trip as we watch her descend into chaos, a woman so slavishly devoted to love that she becomes a carcass of a person.
The Love Witch is a visual experience. Shot in 35mm, it plays like a technicolour dream, a hallucinogenic that marries absurdity and sincerity in its messaging. Elaine is a stunning woman of vintage glamour; pale skin with blood-red lips and mesmerising blue eyeshadow. She looks like she walked straight out of a fairytale and takes meticulous care of her appearance, morphing into desirable ‘types’ of women daily. Escaping from San Francisco in a blood-red 1960s convertible, we see her drive carelessly through hills, chain smoking as memories of her dead ex-husband flash on the screen. She tells us innocently that since the heartbreak she’s been ‘cured’, but still has ‘intrusive thoughts’ since her husband left her, a failed romance she narrates over the visage of a man collapsed after drinking from a poisoned goblet. She’s uniquely terrible; a serial killer by the end of the film who, though quite obviously in a horror film, insists she is the protagonist of a fairytale romance.
When Elaine and her husband Jerry got divorced, she was crushed and only saved by indoctrination into a witches’ coven run by satanists who specialise in ‘love magic’. The film doesn’t hold any inherent commentary on witchcraft or the occult but rather uses them as tools to explore other viewpoints. “Men are very fragile,” she bemoans, smoking cigarette after cigarette. “They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way. You have to be very tricky.” It’s in this sense that the film layers sentiments of witchcraft and magic as antithetical to the Man; a tool of mischief that is the only way a woman can survive while protecting male fragility. The aesthetic doubles as not only a beautiful, voyeuristic experience for the viewer but also as a representation of a small, inoculated society where witchcraft runs unchecked, and of Elaine’s obsession with protecting her fairytale. The girl-boss coven of satanists Elaine joins sees women as goddesses, unable to be equal to men because they are inherently above them. “They teach us that a normative human being is a hyper-rationalist stoic male, and that women’s emotions and intuitions are illnesses that need to be cured. We believe men and women are different and true equality lies in that difference.”
It’s a refreshing philosophy, quite different from many ‘equal rights’ spiels that litter performative films and media. Elaine, however, never seems to fully fall into this; instead, she holds onto her dream of “being carried off by a prince on a white horse”—one she believes is only achievable when she gives a man everything they want. When asked by her neighbour Trish, ‘what about what we want?’—she dismisses the question. She’s simply interested in the coven’s teaching of “sex magic” as a way to create ‘love magic’. The film toys with the subversive, suggesting that the ‘feminist’ view for a woman—inserting one’s self into the typical male role isn’t true equality and not what every woman wants. But still, the patriarchy is harmful and persists, even for women who wish to exist in its traditional roles.
What’s brilliant about The Love Witch is the refreshinging tone and thrum of sincerity that runs deep throughout all the scenes of sex, drugs and glamour. It’s a product of the female gaze for once; Elaine never feels like an object for the camera lens but rather a genuine subject. Even when she naked and somewhat vulnerable, she’s always in control and to us, the audience, she is never less than Elaine. None of the other sexual women are anything lesser, either. The dancers who strip on stage for men are still human in their time on camera. In this respect, Elaine is a fantasy both for men and women—those moments when she is in control are mesmerising and pleasurable to watch in and amongst the softness and glamour of the world.
Stylistically, the characters talk in a stilted fashion and have quite stiff mannerisms, emblematic of the ‘bad movies’ the film draws upon. The cheesiness and gaffe enhances the experience. The camera is hardly subtle with slow turns and zoom-ins, emphasising the sense of performance as we watch characters on a stage in their own lives.
She finds her first victim in a park, meeting his eyes and immediately bewitching him. He takes her to his cabin in the woods where she insists on cooking him dinner first, attending to all his needs and babying him. She answers his every question perfectly, as though she were straight out of his dreams. She drugs his drink and strips for him, a scene that is testament to the female gaze even though she’s completely naked and he’s fully clothed, it’s evident that she’s the one with all the power. They sleep together and she holds him as he cries, overwhelmed with the emotions her magic releases as he feels understood for the first time in his life by her acting. He wails for her and she holds him until she becomes too tired and leaves. “What a pussy. What a baby. I thought I’d found a real man but he’s just a little girl.” She comes back to him after a while to find him dead of heart failure; an interesting commentary on the limitations of a man’s heart.
Structurally, the film ambles. The plot is unclear until the end where Elaine’s fate is ‘fulfilled’ and she’s ‘at peace’ for the first time in her life. Before this, we see her try and fail to find love again and again, carrying on with her life until another opportunity arises. There’s no overarching plot: the uneasiness seemingly implies something dark and unsettling at play but it doesn’t resolve into anything climactic. Rather, it follows Elaine through to her final moment. It’s quite reflective of the director’s own desires for creating a film about women, or rather, the complex experiences and conflicting existence of women. In a way, I can see the plot as trying to explain to men what it’s like to date as a woman; contradicting the popular notion that beautiful women have it easy because they can get whatever man they want while disregarding the often humiliating and dehumanising ordeal of actually dating men.
Elaine’s representation of a fantasy for men and women is explored further when her neighbour Trish sneaks into her house. Having lost her husband after he died by suicide— another conseuquence of heartbreak from being another one of Elaine’s victims—she enters Elaine’s house to return something of hers. There she’s taken in by the array of makeup and accessories, and overcome by temptation, dresses herself to look like her. The scene reflects both Trish beautifying herself out of a need to feel better and also to mirror Elaine; the type of woman who her husband killed himself over. She feels strong, and powerful for a moment, and this is enough for her to turn Elaine into the police.
Elaine is almost every modern representation of the femme fatale: hot, serial killer girl-boss, aware of the advantages of her sexuality and knowing how to use them. She’s a self-titled expert in male parapsychology, thoroughly experienced in the act of seducing men by performing their fantasies. For every man she seduces in the film, she becomes what they want—a tempting adulteress for one and a horse-riding girl next door for another. It’s intrinsic to her to become something for the men she wants—to become less of herself for love. This is the crux of her philosophical conflict, a girl who has always dreamed of a fairytale medieval aesthetic romance but traumatised by the reality of actually living by them. She has ingested patriarchal rhetoric for so long that she intertwines her pleasure in seeking and acquiring love with the pain that comes from the misogyny of it, pleasuring herself whilst hateful men’s voices echo in her mind. Her husband’s, “I love you Elaine, but dinner was late three times this week and the house is a pigsty. It’s embarrassing.” Her father’s, “I have a crazy bitch for a daughter. If you’re not crazy you’re stupid. You could lose a few pounds.”
Elaine’s final victim is her undoing. He’s a square-jawed policeman who believes love makes a man ‘soft’. They are complete opposites, yet they perform their roles for each other perfectly. Elaine is absolutely smitten and, believing he is her fate, she doesn’t realise he’s planning on arresting her.
He calls her a monster and she’s devastated. “All my life I’ve been tossed in the garbage except when men wanted to use my body. So I decided to find my own power and I found that power through witchcraft. That means I take what I need from men and not the other way around.” When the town finds out she was tied to the other men’s deaths they attack her and he saves her, returning to her apartment.
She thinks she’s won him over again and offers him a drink, but he throws it onto the floor. She realises the scene mirrors what she painted weeks ago; a split drink, a man dressed in white below her, bleeding out as she holds a dagger to his heart. She tries to bewitch him with her eyes but his gaze is cold; all she sees inside of him is his skeleton and it’s unbearable for her. To protect her fairytale fantasy she fulfills her destiny and murders him. “Only men make us work so hard for love... If you would only love us for ourselves... You won’t.” The film leaves us with the image of Elaine clutching a knife dripping with blood close to her chest in a look of what can only inexplicably be relief. It’s as though she has somehow freed herself of her own psyche—the internalised dream and vision she had for herself that became violent.
Ultimately, The Love Witch is an uneasy, hypervisual descent into the chaos and trauma of a woman’s desire to be loved like a person. It combines camp and classicism, oozing sensuality and femininity. Everything from the soft colours to the wardrobes to the set design just screams female gaze, with more being said in scenes without any dialogue than with it. It’s incredibly memorable and horrifying, watching a woman turned monster teeter between apathy and emotional intensity, resulting in a serial killer rom-com fusion that violently delights the audience.