Many moons ago, I went to CalArts with The Love Witch's creator Anna Biller. Although nobody makes films like she does, her latest feature displays a loyalty to that '90s CalArts sensibility that I remember so well, and I found it oddly touching. Even Love Witch cinematographer M. David Mullen – Biller does pretty much everything except shoot her films – graduated from CalArts during our time, further underscoring that sense of loyalty. (Full disclosure: I only spoke to Biller once back then, as with her exotic good looks, eccentric but self-assured work, and ultra-cool persona, she was something of a campus celebrity.)
So while CalArts alumni might "get" The Love Witch, where does that leave all the other audience members who didn't go to art school, don't have a fondness for old B-movie aesthetics, and aren't accustomed to seeing feminist discourse filtered through an ironic, retro lens? I have no idea.
Similar to Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and his perverse dedication to early sound cinema, Biller's obsession lies with films made in the 1960s and 1970s, replicating them with note-perfect authenticity while using them as a basis for social commentary. Her previous feature Viva, an overtly campy riff on early '70s softcore porn, was remarkable for its exacting attention to detail. (Biller takes years to personally craft the costumes, props, and decorations for her films, and the result is that you feel like you're watching something out of a time capsule, only infused with postmodern self-awareness.) The Love Witch, however, despite its distinct late '60s aesthetic, doesn't hide the 2016-era vehicles from its exterior shots, and you can glimpse a few modern props. It's clear that we are to understand that this story takes place in contemporary times, even if everybody looks and acts like they're trapped in 1968.
The story itself is rather simple: Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a beautiful young witch who has just arrived in a nameless California town after murdering her husband in San Francisco. She seeks a "perfect love", but after she drives various male suitors wild with desire, she finds herself disappointed with the drab realities of the ensuing relationships, and so she kills them.
Most of what I've read about The Love Witch throws around "feminism" as though that one word is supposed to explain every nuance of the film. I admit that for much of the run time – it clocks in at 120 minutes, overlong but never boring – I struggled to wrap my head around what Biller was trying to say, or whose side she was on. Then I finally saw this as an intensely personal film: not merely a showcase for the director's obsessions (which she rightly calls fetishes, including one for shooting on 35mm film) but a reflection on her own relationships, and her struggles with being both feminine and feminist at a time when many don't know how to reconcile the two. During the Q&A at her LA premiere, Biller told the audience that the film was autobiographical. Many laughed. I'm not sure how much she wanted them to.
This all sounds like heady stuff, and I agree with Biller when she calls her film a tragedy. But for the most part, The Love Witch is a colorful romp. Some will find it simply an exercise in kitsch and will tire of it after a while. Others will find deeper meaning. Still others, I suspect, will rave about it publicly, while secretly not understanding it or liking it. (Such are hipsters, whether it's 1968 or 2016.)
If you've never seen Anna Biller's films, it may be wise to start with Viva. If you dig it, and admire what she's trying to say with her work, then follow up with The Love Witch. But make up your mind soon: you may not get a chance to see the latter film in gorgeous 35mm after its initial theatrical run.