The trance-like quality of Anna Biller’s third film is what strikes you immediately, the lavish attention to detail that took over 7 years of the director’s life seducing you in the very first shot. Even if the smartly packaged themes embedded into the The Love Witch fail to win you over, the Technicolor dreamland so painstakingly put together stitch-by-stitch will keep you hypnotised until the very end.
Comparisons with Mulholland Drive would not feel out of place given the purposely stilted performances straight out of a cable soap opera. Or even Blue Velvet, as it plays with your expectations of the era this takes place in. The small tell-tale signs of which are there from the very beginning, despite almost everything else in the film doing all it can to convince you otherwise. Which is not to do a disservice to the extraordinary effort put into realising this world. While the Lynchian qualities extend into its self-enclosed nature, it would be completely unfair to say this is a film that does not succeed on its own merits.
A world such as this could only exist under the guiding hand of its director, who was responsible for directing, writing, producing, editing, composing and many of the gorgeous set and costume designs. It’s an exhaustive list that explains the long period since her last release, and Biller succeeds where so many other directors have failed in recent years when attempting to re-create the ambience of a by-gone era.
There is far more happening behind the eye-popping colour palette, as we follow Elaine (Samantha Robinson) arriving in sunny California hoping to leave behind dark troubles from her recent past. Attempting to start again, all she wants is to find a man that will truly love her, settle down and be the good wife that all little girls are supposed to be. Taking the conventional route is old-hat (oh, and what a hat it is) when you can concoct love potions to induce sex magic that makes the man of your dreams fall head over heels. The problem is, each and every one fails to live up to expectation. As Elaine runs through an array of male caricatures, she is left sorely disappointed by these quivering wrecks overwhelmed with this onslaught of emotion.
A disconnect between what Elaine believes is the right thing to pursue and what she actually feels unveils a pathological approach to her new relationships. If they don’t work, she scraps them immediately to start again. The conditioning of the sexes starts from the moment we all draw our first breath and both sets of actors revel in these expected tropes, that while performed in a dated manner, remain strikingly relevant. Biller plays with these ideas through Elaine’s life as a witch, a path she was forced into by her ex-husband and the men that cannot understand her womanhood. The sexual revolution came and went leaving yet more broken promises and male patriarchy untouched.
At two hours some of the scenes do feel like they extend unnecessarily, at times admiring itself a little too much but it would be churlish to be overcritical for doing so. The little known Samantha Robinson is magnetic in the lead role, finding the perfect balance between sincerity and callousness at the right moments. While she remains the story’s centrepiece, seemingly lifted out of her doll packaging accompanied by an array of immaculate clothing, the support cast are equally as strong in their roles, hamming it up with conviction.
This is a film of indulgence and wit, with a sting in the tail lying behind the retro aesthetics. As Biller continues to subvert gender politics with such incisiveness, its examination becomes all the more meaningful. It’s worth remembering that if you want to open a dialogue with your audience, dazzle them with sweetness and light, before they bite into the coffee-filled centre.
The Love Witch: incisive, subversive and bewitching.