“I don’t really mind death. I’ve buried people before — people I really cared about.”
Elaine comes driving along the California coastline, her cat-eye eyeliner perfect and her goal clear: she wants love, and she’ll do anything to get it.
This is The Love Witch, a glorious technicolor dream of a movie from writer-director-producer-production designer Anna Biller. Here is a film that is so meticulously constructed to resemble a 1960s Euro-thriller that you’ll be startled when a very modern looking police car suddenly pulls Elaine over to the side of the road. The Love Witch is set in a kind of in-between time, where the costumes and attitudes invoke the 60s while little esoteric details hint at something much more modern. It’s all part of Biller’s sweet candy-colored fantasy world: a film that’s a wild, sexy, funny, twisted breath of fresh air, referential while also being unlike anything you’ve ever laid eyes on.
Samantha Robinson is Elaine, a witch so beautiful that she can transform men into human Tex Avery cartoons, their eyes bugging from their heads, a wolf-whistle seconds away from their lips. Elaine uses that beauty, and her own particular brand of witchcraft, to lure men in — but her intentions are pure, or at least she’d like to think so: she wants love. True, passionate, fairy tale love. Unfortunately the men she attracts don’t have any real concept of what that type of love is; they’re consumed with lust, and Elaine’s love potions and spells tend to have fatal effects on the hapless hunks she takes home.
It would be very easy to label what Biller has made here as camp — the swingin’ 60s vibe mixed with a decidedly cheeky sense of humor hint at that. But The Love Witch is something beyond camp. In fact, it’s not really possible to classify just what type of movie this is, other than amazing. Elaine’s morbidly funny narration weaves through the film on her quest for love while Biller’s script has a fresh (for movies, at least) approach to feminism and females in general; on how the very nature of women seems to make clueless men view them in a supernatural light. If this were a simple romantic comedy Elaine would be the hapless love-sick heroine who just can’t land a man. Here the trope is twisted on its head: Elaine can land a man, but he’s always a dud who ends up dead. “What a pussy,” she purrs in her voice-over after a particularly passionate bit of lovemaking reduces a silver fox college professor into a whimpering mess. Later, she comments on how most men have never seen a used tampon in their lives, which perfectly sets up a later scene where two male police officers stumble upon a crime scene. There, they find a “witch jar” containing a used tampon. “What the hell is that thing?” one cop incredulously asks the other.
Shot in luscious 35mm, Biller’s film adopts the zooms and pans prevalent in the films of the 60s and 70s she’s inspired by. The director employs these tricks to perfection, never once dipping into parody. The same can be said of the performances of the cast — across the board, each actor plays their part with a tinge of referential acting while simultaneously taking it all very seriously. It’s a wonder to behold, just as much as the lovely mise-en-scène of the film itself.
The only hindrance to speak of is the solid 2-hour runtime. There’s certainly a desire to linger in the world The Love Witch creates as long as possible, but a slight meandering pace could’ve been tightened with the slightest bit of trimming. Then again, with such sights up on the screen it’s hard to say what would be worth parting with. The Love Witch will cast a spell over you, one that you won’t soon shake off. This is pure cinema, destined to be obsessed over and longed for.
A version of this review originally appeared on July 17, 2016.