The Love Witch (2016)
This is a strange, and ultimately frustrating, movie to watch. Director - and just about everything else except actor - Anna Biller has created a unique aesthetic with The Love Witch, a movie I expected to be a feminist diatribe. It turned out to be from the female perspective, into which bad treatment by men and society in general is going to form some of the vision, but not overwhelmingly feminist. Instead Biller sought to explore, often through voiceovers, different perspectives on love and obsession.
Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) is a witch who moves from San Francisco to a small California town after being investigated for death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). She rents a room in a house belonging to her fellow coven member Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) and quickly makes friends with a real estate lady named Trish (Laura Waddell). She also sets about finding her perfect man, mixing up a love potion in order to speed things along.
Her first pursuit is Wayne Peters (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a university professor, and things don't turn out as planned. After that she moves on to Trish's husband Richard (Robert Seeley), and finally to a local police detective named Griff Meadows (Gian Keys). Meadows has his suspicions about Elaine but is captivated by her like all the men she meets. However, "body count" is more than just a euphemism for Elaine's love life, and her past may just destroy her hopes for the future.
Biller apparently loves old-school Hollywood, from the pre-Code area onward. She films on 35mm, something that in this digital age is rarely done by major studios, let alone independent directors. She also came up with a specific look for her film. Hair styles, and much of the clothing, appears to be from the early 1970s, while all the cars (except Elaine's and Wayne's) are relatively modern. This retro look extends to background characters. At first I thought that his was simply because Biller could get plenty of vintage clothing but old cars cost too much to rent or buy. Instead, as evidenced when Trish uses a cellphone to call Elaine, this is a deliberate choice.
Thus, The Love Witch turns out to be a colorful film, from Elaine's matching dress, car and luggage to the Victorian Tea Room done up all in pink and lavender. The burlesque bar looks like something straight out of a Russ Meyer film while the witch coven is a throwback to cheap '70s horror flicks. It is interesting to look at and is quite admirable from an artistic perspective.
As for the movie that accompanies it the main story is done well. Samantha Robinson perfectly inhabits Elaine, a woman with a specific idea of what love should be. That view is shaped by the abuse she has suffered throughout her life from family and lovers. Elaine has many problems including outright denial in her culpability in multiple deaths. She also has no compunctions about boundaries, openly pursuing Trish's husband. On that end Laura Waddell is a perfect foil for Elaine, having a more realistic view of what male and female roles should be in a relationship, while still being envious of who Elaine is. Some of the performances are stiff, some of the movie is stagey, but by and large Biller put together an excellent cast.
Where she goes wrong is being her own editor. The movie took seven years to make. She worked hard on the script and worked with Robinson for a year on getting Elaine perfect. She financed it and did almost everything herself. For instance, one rug in Elaine's room taking six months of work, with Biller making it from scratch. I can understand how after that much work and care she put into the project that she would be reluctant to cut any of it.
However, The Love Witch could have been a clean 90 minutes or less and had greater impact. There is an entire scene where the coven puts on a Renaissance performance and a handfasting for Elaine and Griff. It contains some points of importance - the difference in how Griff and Elaine see their relationship as well as what Elaine's fantasies of ideal love are - but this could have been shifted to other parts of the movie and the sequence cut entirely. There are parts that don't work, particularly an argument between Griff and another cop that is about as bad as the one between the Kid and his father in Purple Rain, and some flubbed line deliveries, but the place where the movie comes to a halt for almost 10 to 15 minutes is the Renaissance scene. The end also goes on much longer than it needs to.
Hopefully Biller will begin delegating some of the duties for her future films, including listening to people when they say that certain things need to be removed or shortened. She is a great director and is quite imaginative, but in the end the lesson I took away is not how men and women see love differently, but that if one cares too much about a project it is important to get a second pair of eyes on it to get an objective opinion. That way the point doesn't get lost over the course of the runtime.
The Love Witch (2016)
Time: 120 minutes
Starring: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise
Director: Anna Biller