It took some time for me to figure out what to say about The Love Witch, written and directed by Anna Biller. It looks like a late 1960s low-budget occult horror film slash soft-core psychedelic sex romp. It is a spoof, but also a lot more than that. It’s a perverse labor of love that is challenging on more than one level. The incredibly talented Biller also did the costumes, set decoration, production design, editing, and music.
Here’s the story. Beautiful and seductive Elaine, played by Samantha Robinson, has relocated to an unnamed California town after her husband ditched her in San Francisco and then died mysteriously. She has been introduced to a group of wiccans that practices a form of sex magic. Elaine wants nothing more than a relationship with a strong reliable man, and she uses her magic to seduce one after the other, but things always seem to end up badly for them. Then she falls for a handsome cop who is investigating recent suspicious deaths.
The movie takes these risible plot elements from exploitation films and turns them upside down. Robinson, with her long black hair, pink lip gloss and blue eye shadow, plays at being the perfect male fantasy. Elaine tells every man exactly what he wants to hear, an amusing parody of wide-eyed innocence and romanticism. The film is especially hilarious when it savages male illusions. The men in the movie alternate between macho posturing and pathetic neediness. But no one escapes ridicule here—men, women, phony nature mystics, Renaissance fairs, pretentious college types, and most of all, the so-called sexual revolution.
There’s nudity and sex and even some violence, but measured on the scale of, say, your average HBO series, it’s lightweight. What viewers may have trouble with instead is reconciling the film’s black magic story premise with its giddy and satiric viewpoint on sex, gender, and romance. I flinched a few times myself when The Love Witch prompted me to remember some ridiculous words and actions in my past, from which I’m guessing no one but a celibate would be immune.
Besides Samantha Robinson, who is marvelous, the film features Jeffrey Vincent Parise, a face if not a name familiar from TV, as Elaine’s funniest hook-up. The design of the film is amazing. Biller seems to have thrown every hippie motif she could find into the cauldron. It’s a feminist sensibility through and through, without needing to draw attention to itself as such. And just when you’re getting too comfortable, Biller will break the spell, if you’ll pardon the expression, with some menace. The spectacle of a group of people yelling “burn the witch” while they try to pin a woman to the floor is anything but light-hearted.
So you’ve been warned. But I will say anyway that I loved The Love Witch. I laughed a lot. And another plus is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas.