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The Love Witch

Typically, when I’m this incredibly far on my backlog, I just show up at the theater and pick whatever happens to be showing next. This time, however, I decided to pick the one that was least likely to still be around next week. It wasn’t a hard choice.

The Love Witch comes to us from writer/director/producer/editor/production designer/score composer Anna Biller. It chronicles the romantic misadventures of Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson), who had previously been dumped by her emotionally abusive ex-husband. So she joined a coven and learned the ways of witchcraft (like you do). And then her ex-husband just happened to drop dead a few days before he was supposed to get married to someone else.

Yes, witchcraft is apparently a very real thing in this world, but everyone seems to brush it off as the practice of a religious minority. Thus we get into religious persecution and so on. But the movie’s real bread and butter is in gender politics.

Some of Elaine’s fellow witches (most notably Gahan and Barbara, respectively played by Jared Sanford and Jennifer Ingrum) state that witchcraft is a means of sexual empowerment. It’s a means of tearing down patriarchal gender expectations by normalizing the nude form, enlightening both sexes so they’re both on a more even field. It’s a distinctly feminist practice, celebrating women in a way that also neutralizes toxic masculinity.

Elaine, however, uses witchcraft in a very different manner.

For Elaine, witchcraft is a means to achieve the ultimate patriarchal heteronormative romance. She becomes the impossibly gorgeous and sexually insatiable beauty that any (stereotypical) straight man would dream about. And with this persona, she constantly searches after the chiseled and stoic Prince Charming that all (stereotypical) men aspire to be.

Yet Elaine herself is such a dead-eyed whisper-voiced enigma that there doesn’t seem to be anything to her aside from the fantasy. Hell, given that she uses love spells to attract the opposite sex, her attempts at romance are doubly fake. And then eventually, inevitably, her impossibly perfect would-be love interests turn out to be human and flawed. So both sides of this fantasy romance are exposed as the shallow frauds they are, which naturally results in a catastrophic breakup. And because Elaine is a witch, the word “catastrophic” is in no way a hyperbole.

All throughout the film, Elaine tears through one dysfunctional relationship after another, breaking hearts and piling up corpses as she goes. Is she doing this because she genuinely wants this fairy tale romance? Or is she still angry with her ex and taking it out on everyone else? Maybe it’s both or neither? Nobody — especially not Elaine herself — can answer that.

So if a woman gets herself all dressed up and makes herself sexually available, is she acting in an empowered way that takes ownership of her body and her sexuality? Or is she acting in accordance with the patriarchy and voluntarily making herself nothing more than a sexual object? This is a conundrum that’s at least as old as feminism itself. This is some surprisingly intellectual stuff for such a campy trifle to explore, and it’s even more bold that our protagonist takes the anti-feminist side in a distinctly feminist picture.

I want to stress emphatically that our protagonist and her ideals are very clearly shown to be misguided. This is most obvious through the character of Trish (Laura Waddell), an ordinary woman routinely made to suffer through Elaine and her views on romance. She’s easily the most level-headed character in this picture, but that isn’t saying much.

I can’t overstate how over-the-top stupid the film is. The main attraction is not in its ruminations about gender, but in its odd retro mashup style. Everything about this movie was very clearly made in homage to pulp films of yesteryear, though a few modern touches still linger (most likely due to budget restraints), creating a quirky kind of anachronistic setting that works surprisingly well.

I’ve seen the movie described as a horror comedy, but that’s not exactly right. Given the broad performances, the hokey dialogue, the extreme close-ups, the frenetic editing, the “shot in Technicolor” visuals, and the extravagant production design, everything about this movie feels like a melodramatic paranormal romance. It’s a film so campy that it would be unintentionally funny if it didn’t feel so perfectly calculated to hit just the right balance of stupid and smart.

And that isn’t even getting started on the nudity. The whole film is loaded with softcore sex and nudity in a way that reinforces the “retro B-movie” feel. Ditto for the portrayals of witchcraft, which of course overlaps with the nudity by a huge margin.

Speaking of which, I was pleased and amazed to see what may be the most authentic portrayal of tarot cards I’ve ever seen in cinema. The Celtic Cross layout got name-dropped correctly, none of the cards are made up, and the filmmakers don’t just stick to the major arcana. In fact, one card in the minor arcana (and one of my personal favorites among that set) is used as a recurring motif: The Three of Swords, which symbolizes a conflict of logic and emotion. Either that or it literally symbolizes getting someone stabbed through the heart. But I digress.

The Love Witch works in a way that’s not easy to describe in writing. So much of it hinges on the intricate visuals, the dazzling production design, and a perfectly balanced sense of camp, all of which are unique in a way that must be seen to be believed. Throw in the carefully orchestrated retro feel and the feminist themes that are just present enough without getting too preachy or distracting, and this was very clearly a stupid film made by smart people.

This is definitely a film for those with a sweet tooth for campy over-the-top cinema, and those with a fondness for old-school B-movie melodrama. There’s more going on, to be sure, but anyone who doesn’t have the patience for overly broad acting won’t stick around for it.

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