There’s a pivotal scene in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows in which the reflected image of Jane Wyman’s Cary is framed within a television screen, bought for her by her family. Its a symbolically charged moment, the film revolving around the socially ‘scandalous’ relationship of an affluent widow and her younger gardener, dictating that a woman of Cary’s age and marital status must be prisoner to a life ruled by consumerism and the home. Sixty-seven years later, Anna Biller appropriates the image in The Love Witch, maintaining Sirk’s glorious technicolor, in her use of a mirror as the captive frame not of the woman, who moves freely in and out, but of the man, who is slavishly trapped in his bed. Whilst perfectly capturing the aesthetics of mid-twentieth century Hollywood, Biller’s film is a subversive, and deliciously addictive, feminist hit.
Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, the ‘Love Witch’ of the title, seeking a new life in California after the suspect death of her husband – suspect so far as it’s unequivocally by her hand: ‘According to the experts men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way’. On her arrival to the suburbs of Arcata, Elaine is met by Trish (Laura Waddell) and shown to the Edward Scissorhands-ian gothic mansion that is to be her new abode before the pair go for lunch at a splendidly traditional women-only Victorian tearoom, where Elaine simpers her devotion to love. ‘You might say I’m addicted to love’ she says wistfully after declaring that all women at heart wish for no more than the dream of ‘being carried off by a prince on a white horse’. Biller peppers her script with these ironically sexist asides, many of which might well have been directly taken from the very lingo of the 60/70s films which inspire The Love Witch, and often with terrific comic effect. Indeed, through this afternoon tea, Elaine – with her exquisite hat – hits the aesthetic of Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady brilliantly as she refrains that women must bow to a man’s needs to get what they want – love. Elaine is an Eliza Doolittle, however, that returns to her boudoir lodgings to paint images reminiscent Botticelli, if Botticelli’s Venus rose from the water and promptly tore out the heart of her painter with a deliberately phallic sword.
Robinson’s Elaine represents, via an unsettling presentational style of acting, the epitome of the femme fatale; she dresses in battle-ready reds, identifying her sexual targets, before discarding them violently as they fail to meet her satisfactions. Extreme close ups meet her careful self-styling to recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; woe betide any voyeur who attempts to dominate her however.
Biller, who also produced, edited, designed, costumed, set and soundtrack arranged the film, grants her heroine some fabulously quotable lines, each delivered with knowing assurance. M. David Mullen’s cinematography is, moreover, faultless, whilst around Robinson are a cast so polished that it is often a challenge to remember that The Love Witch is actually a very much contemporary affair. Dated visuals, including car rides with rear projected backgrounds straight from the classics, jar with modern accoutrements and ritualistic burlesque-sequences. Rituals trickle throughout the film in fact, a folky diegetic soundtrack and ye olde font recalling even The Wicker Man. As with Hardy’s horror, The Love Witch bears nudity in a forthrightly unabashed fashion; likewise, a Midsummer festival in worship of the ‘God of love’ is surely a direct callback.
For all its cineliteracy, Biller’s game is a dangerous one and does occasionally lose its way, particularly in its deployment of the occult. Alongside her potion brewing and sex hunting, Elaine attends a beguiling sequence of witch gatherings, each involving various levels of undress and spell casting frolics. In her sexual encounters, Elaine bewitches her victims into near intolerable emotional sensation: ‘You’re just having a lot of emotions right now’. It’s almost as though Biller proposes a disjuncture betwixt the outcomes of sexual intercourse, exposing the stereotypically feminine wish for longevity and the male desire for transitory conquest. It’s slippery like that.
Both homage and satire of its forebears, The Love Witch achieves nostalgia and disquiet alike, and absorbingly so. Whereas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is remembered as a camp melodrama, Biller’s Love Witch will surely inspire cult adoration.