Anna Biller’s beautiful, bursting new film The Love Witch pays sincere homage to a subgenre of cinema that has never found much mainstream acceptance and only hesitant academic appreciation. As such, it will likely be difficult for some viewers not to approach it as parody. That would be unfair. Biller’s passionate and whip-smart love letter to early 1970s sexploitation, Euro-schlock and cinema fantastique movies from directors like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin is one of the most invigorating films of the year.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a practicing witch who has decided to leave San Francisco after the mysterious death of her husband. She moves to an unnamed California college town where she quickly integrates with the local witch and warlock community. With even more expedience, she begins her search for another lover, mixing potions and casting spells to devastating results for her potential beaux.
All of this technically takes place in the present day, as we can tell from the occasional appearance of modern cars, phones and computers. Apart from that, though, any single frame of The Love Witch could be taken for an excerpt from a particularly well-preserved print of, say, The Blood Spattered Bride. Every set, every shot, every color, shadow, filter, piece of music and, invaluably, each performance are perfectly tuned to the era. Biller not only knows her stuff, she clearly loves it. By the way, this is where I encourage you to see the movie projected from 35mm if at all possible. The texture is an essential part of the mélange.
Biller’s perfectly pitched earnestness is crucial. Clearly, The Love Witch, with its tongue in cheek anachronisms and aesthetic fidelity to its inspirations, is not a contemporary updating of the genre, like Xan Cassavetes’ underrated Kiss of the Damned from a few years ago. But it’s also not exploiting its character archetypes and their juxtaposition with the modern day for meta laughs, like in Adam Abraham’s (also underrated) Man of the Century from 1999.
Instead, Biller uses her cultural and chronological jumble to connect the dots between different waves of feminism. The Love Witch is interested in the notion that a woman can use her sexuality to establish control and to gain her own ends. On a pragmatic level, this is empowering. On a deeper level, though, it’s dehumanizing to both sexes, reducing them to their most base and primal traits.
While this dialectical storm brews just under the surface, The Love Witch carries on with its colorful and delightful homage. It may be far too idiosyncratic a picture to garner much awards buzz but, for those with the temerity to take it seriously, it holds laudable wonders.