“The Love Witch” is a deceptively simple movie that taps into a whole lot of complex ideas. Of course, the fact that it’s an homage to the Technicolor sexploitation films of the 1960s means it touches on the issues it introduces in a way that’s refreshingly enjoyable rather than shrill. The magic begins when the impossibly beautiful Elaine (newcomer Samantha Robinson, in a truly spellbinding performance) moves to a small California town to start over after the death of her husband. And part of her new life includes embracing witchcraft and finding a man. And by finding a man, I mean needing one, so much that Elaine’s friend Trish remarks, “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” Sister, you don’t know the half of it.
Too bad Elaine’s search for love is doomed from the start. Her religion allows her to own and embrace her sexuality, but it also limits her by reinforcing that she needs a man to complete herself. She transforms herself into a doll-like fantasy object for men while demanding they live up to her own fairy tale fantasies. Her deeply contradictory, narcissistic needs will never be satisfied, because no amount of love will ever be enough. Small wonder then, that she (mostly inadvertently) destroys nearly everyone she encounters.
It all goes down with a wickedly satirical edge, courtesy of Anna Biller, who not only wrote and directed, but also edited, produced, and designed the costumes and sets, ensuring that the film’s ’60s sensibilities are felt in every scene and conversation, adding even more beauty to the deeply feminine, female spaces “The Love Witch” features, such as a gorgeous tea room where women drape themselves in Victorian finery while harpists croon romantically.
Yes, Elaine and the other women in the cast are highly sexualized, but it’s in a more creative, respectful way we rarely see, one that examines all the impossible expectations women are compelled to live up to, especially in the realm of desire. Biller allows us to sympathize with Elaine while holding her accountable for the havoc she creates. Elaine may be a monster, but her transformation is merely a response to what various men have demanded of her throughout her life.
The film does lose its way a bit near the end, as if Biller can’t quite decide how she wants a few of her characters to come across. And I would’ve liked to learn what the situation was with her mother and other women in her life, rather than just men. But it barely dampens the seductive spell “The Love Witch” casts. Before you surrender to it, just remember that you were warned.