While writer/director/producer/art director/costume designer Anna Biller has said she wanted to evoke the Technicolor thrillers of the ‘60s, another comparison kept plucking at the edges of my memory as I watched–The Wonderful World of the Brothers’ Grimm, the 1962 film directed by Henry Levin and George Pal. It’s a fitting comparison: like any Grimm fairy tale worth its salt, The Love Witch offers beauty and fantasy, but something darker and uglier eventually seeps through.
Before we go any further, you’re going to have to watch the trailer (except maybe my Mom–NSFW):
When we first meet Elaine, she’s fleeing a cloud of suspicion following the death of her ex-husband, and starting a new life where she can pursue both the Satanic arts and her dream of finding a man to love. “You might say I’m addicted to love!” she burbles to Trish, the modern woman who rents Elaine an apartment. After listening to Elaine explain how women need to give men what they want–“Just a pretty woman to love, and to take care of them, and to make them feel like a man. And to give them total freedom in whatever they want to do or be!”–Trish incredulously says, “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!”
Later, we find that Elaine has indeed internalized the criticism of her father and ex-husband (“You’ve put on weight!” “How hard is it to get dinner ready on time?”) and devoted herself to the dark arts to catch a man, becoming a weaponized Cosmo magazine in the process. Elaine’s outer glamour–luxurious wig, lacquered makeup, lingerie–isn’t just about vanity. They are her rituals, her magicks, her power, and she wields them with blunt (and perhaps deadly?) force.
Elaine quickly captures the attention of Wayne, a local professor, asking him to take her to his remote cabin, offering a flask of some unknown potion, and then cooking him a very masculine steak dinner. Then Elaine and Wayne retire to the bedroom, after which . . . the shine begins to fade.
You see, whether it’s the potion or the heady combination of red meat and hot sex, Wayne begins to feel and express emotions. “Elaine!” he cries, tears rolling down his face, as Elaine, stone faced, sneers, “What a pussy.” Things do not end well for Wayne.
That’s the double-edged sword cutting through this devilish fairy tale: by becoming the living embodiment of the male fantasy, Elaine is now all surface, no soul. She’s only interested in the thrill of the hunt, of capturing the attention of a man. Why would she subject herself to the daily drudge of sharing a bathroom or talking about feelings, when she can dispose of all that messiness (along with the man) and find a new conquest?
Griff, a police detective who’s a living caricature of the “manly” man (He likes his coffee like he likes his women!), and therefore Elaine’s ultimate prey, accuses her of being a black hole that no amount of love can fill. And he’s correct. The narrow desires of the patriarchy have created its own Frankenstein’s monster in Elaine, and the men pay dearly in The Love Witch.
Is The Love Witch a “good” movie? Yes and no. The acting is stilted (although perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere Biller is trying to achieve), the storyline is ridiculous, and the supernatural elements are incredibly campy. But it’s a strange and beautiful and sexy and unique and bizarre and intentional movie, and it is exactly what director Anna Biller set out to make (seriously, look at the credits on IMDB, Biller did nearly everything herself, including designing and creating the pentagram rug in Elaine’s apartment).