The bottle was marked “Poison: literally poison”.
“How much is this?”
“That’s poison,” the wizened man behind the counter said, looking over his glasses at me, “That bottle contains a great curse -”
“How much is it, you old bastard?”
It tasted pretty bad, but there’s no way I’m going to let a fortune teller be right about something. Your recalcitrant nature will be your downfall, she had said. Well, I’m not going to die from a word if I never find out what it means, am I? So, I’ll just drink this poison and laugh in her stupid wrinkly face, the cheek of it, telling me what to do.
I was still standing outside the apothecary (that I don’t think was there yesterday) when my phone beeped. “Love Witch Now Available to Rent in HD”, said the email header. I looked at the bottle of poison in the other hand and flipped it over.
“Instructions: Drink it, it’ll take, like, two hours or something.”
Excellent, I thought. Just enough time.
“The Love Witch” is an interesting one. Is it style over content? Is it self-indulgent nonsense? Is it a masterpiece that takes inspiration from cinema history? It’s probably a bit of all those things. One of the interesting things to note before watching this film is the list of crew roles attributed to the director, Anne Biller: Music, Editing, Production Design, Art Direction, Set Decoration and Costume Design. While most directors would have made their vision felt in these areas and then delegated, Anne Biller clearly takes a more hands-on approach. But why would a director take such direct (no pun intended) action with her film? Well, that becomes clear very quickly when you start watching. Every shot, every costume, every picture on the walls adds something to the feeling of a connected and consistent universe within the film. Biller clearly decided that in order to make the film she wanted to make she was going to have to get her hands dirty.
“The Love Witch” follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she moves to a new town. Her motivations are quickly and explicitly revealed. She wants to find a man to love her, and plans to use potions and magic to make it happen. She quickly makes a new friend, Trish (Laura Waddell), who states the main anti-theme of the movie: Elaine is making herself an object of sexualised fascination for Men, allowing herself to be used as long as she gains something from it. Trish clearly disapproves, and the viewer is left with two surrogates to choose from: Will you disapprove of the sexual liberation/enslavement or will you follow Elaine on her quest to find her Prince charming?
Thankfully the film lets the technicolor melodramas that inspired it deal with simplistic moral choices and leaves us in a more complex but garishly lit ethical gray area . The film itself has a strong feminist message, within the film and in the fact that it was one woman’s vision that made it happen. Elaine is a threat to the people around her because she has power and she’s ruthless enough to go through with her plans. This power makes her dangerous because the men in the film assume they have control over her when they take her to bed. The films makes it clear that, in fact, she is in the driver’s seat with her interactions with men.
The plot moves along at a pleasing speed and joyfully leans into its many plot holes in the tradition of its predecessors. You’ll enjoy the plot but it’s not what you came for, is it? You didn’t start watching a film about sexy witches for the stories, now did you? I know what you’re after. You’re hoping that the film will drop its chiffon dressing gown as it steps into the shower, aren’t you? You want to watch it roll over amongst the silk sheets of its colour pallette and bite its lip, making bedroom eyes at you, don’t you? But wait, what’s that written on the dressing gown? It’s “loving recreations of once cliched material”. And what’s that lipstick colour called? It’s called consistent artistic vision and prowess. Yeah, that’s what you’re here for.
The opening shot sees Elaine driving her convertible up a mountain road. Each close up faithfully shot on a soundstage, her impeccable makeup, a clear exposition of the films intended pallette. She reminisces over the things that brought her this far and I am hooked. Each shot after that is a work of art. The only problems occur when one shot isn’t quite as good as the ones around it. The original technicolor melodramas were replete with janky, non sequitur cutaways but they weren’t trying to be stylish, not in the same way at least. There are just a couple of times that The Love Witch misses a step which are only highlighted by the brilliance of everything else that’s happening. Bright technicolor, aggressive saturation, each careful edit and dissolve give it a fantastical/dreamlike atmosphere that reinforces the actual content of the story.
Something that myriad very negatives reviews mention is “style/over content” or “looks like it was shot in duh 70’s! Terrible”. And they’re sort of, not wrong in a way. The content does feel a little thin on the ground in places but then as you stick with it you start to see all the elements that tie together to produce a solid, carefully considered whole. Also, if everyone in a technicolor melodrama acted like a normal human being and was shot with an appropriate amount of light, it wouldn’t be a technicolor melodrama, would it?
It’s almost shocking how much thought has gone into everything. From foreshadowing to careful editing, to the art on the walls everything belongs in the shot. Delve a little deeper than the surface and you see the powerful machine under the bonnet (A delicious pun? Hmmmm?). There are at least two separate occasions where cake is used to represent Elaine’s misdeeds: A garden fork (or was it a shovel?) becomes a cake fork digging into a chocolate cake in one and in another a bloody mess cuts to some kind of jam sponge. It’s just so satisfying. This leads me to think that the “style over content” argument doesn’t really hold up. There’s plenty of meaning and imagery there, you just have to pay a bit more attention to see it. For example, throughout the film we see Elaine “painting” (or hilariously, “mime-painting”) scenes of pagan worship, sacrifice and general witch-y stuff, you know, and then the scenes they depict start taking place in the real world. Is it that there is magic at hand, or is Elaine simply planning through the medium of slightly off-kilter paintings? Only God Forgives is a film with more style than content, this isn’t.
There’s a lot of fun to be had watching this. From taking in the beautifully composed shots to admiring the set decoration, costumes and makeup to shouting at the screen as the characters dance their mad dance towards the finale, and listening to them slowly and awkwardly say their lines. You can take the strong feminist themes away and think about them. You can consider the sexual politics of it all. You can try to rationalise the baffling anachronisms (WHEN IS THIS FILM SET?). You can run around in the playground of this film for the almost its entire length enjoying every minute. Length is one of its problems unfortunately. At two hours it is, by no means, excessive. But it does feel a little like it hasn’t quite got the steam to get to the finish line towards the end. Not to say it’s boring at all, but it sets its own bar so high it was never going to hit every step. The ending is pretty good though, stick with it.
Recommending this film is tricky. If you grew up on Technicolor melodramas on Sunday afternoon and Thunderbirds, The Man From Uncle and Columbo you will find a comfortable but interesting place to spend two hours. If you loved Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, I think you’ll find something here to enjoy. If not you might have some trouble. So, my rather unsatisfying conclusion is, I would recommend this, to people who would like it. Good work, Sam.
Review by Sam Rae
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