I had never heard of writer-director Anna Biller before The Love Witch came out, but it turns out there’s a reason for that. See, it can be hard to be a prolific, one-a-year director when you’re as invested in your production process as Biller is. Because, in addition to writing and directing (and producing) her films, Biller handles her own set and costume design work, often making parts of the sets and costumes herself. It’s a true labor of love, a film in which even the tiniest aspect bears Biller’s mark. And that comes through in the film, which feels fussed over and created in a way that few films do.
And yet, all of that, to steal a word from critic Scott Tobias, is “extratextual”. Yes, it’s part of what made me want to check out The Love Witch, and there’s no denying that it gives the film a rich texture. But the more important question: is The Love Witch any good? Luckily, the answer is a wildly enthusiastic “yes” – for all of the film’s minor flaws, it’s wonderfully odd, engaging, and unlike just about anything else you’ve ever seen. Even better, it makes use of Biller’s rich sets and costumes to fill in its world and themes in satisfying, engaging ways.
Mind you, The Love Witch is more a movie about its style and themes than it is a plot. The film is about a witch (in the pagan, Wiccan sense of the word) named Elaine (played by the arresting, captivating Samantha Robinson), who’s moving to a new town after her last relationship went very south. Elaine is gorgeous, flirty, and wants love in her life, and starts making a potion to help herself out. Only thing is, that potion maybe works a little too well…
Really, that’s about all the story there is. The Love Witch could almost be three episodes of a forgotten, strange 1970’s television show; the film follows Elaine through three separate relationships, each building off of the mistakes and successes of the past. But what engages you so much about the film isn’t that story; it’s Biller’s incredible evocation of 1970’s horror, bringing in the vivid, excessive colors of someone like Argento, the soft lighting that was so ubiquitous at the time, and the slightly campy style that never insists upon itself. It’s an unbelievable love letter to those sort of films, and the result is absolutely stunning to watch, simply from a visual perspective – it’s saturated, moody, funny, and just a joy.
But more than that, there’s the wonderfully odd, idiosyncratic themes of the film, which offer musings on feminism, gender roles, relationship goals, and more. Biller’s film is undeniably feminist, but in surprising ways, exploring the way women’s emotions cause them to approach relationships differently than men, to say nothing of how they deal with breakups and the like. More than that, there’s musings on religion (specifically pagan and Wiccan beliefs), fidelity, and more, all mixed into this strange black comedy film with wonderful touches of psychological horror throughout. And every bit of loving craft on costumes, makeup, and the memorable sets only underlines all of Biller’s thoughtful, off-kilter world.
The result is a wonderfully odd, unique film, and one that’s intentionally and lovingly crafted for a niche appeal. It’s meandering, campy, feminist, silly, and moody; it’s got fun performances that fit its retro mood and atmosphere to a T; it’s got an iconoclastic sensibility that never compromises but never turns into absurd navel-gazing art house fare. And more than anything else, it feels like little else I’ve ever seen – it’s undeniably an homage to an era, but manages the task of creating that homage while never being anything less than its own film. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it’s not perfect, a little too long, and occasionally self-indulgent, but almost always entertaining and engaging. And even when it’s not, what a joy it is just to watch and lose yourself in that color-drenched, saturated technicolor world. Biller’s films may take years, but if they’re this engaging and fun, I’m totally on board with that.