No film in 2016 is more gorgeous to watch than The Love Witch, shot in 35mm and stylized so precisely in every aspect. From the stunning costumes to the popping colors of the cinematography, the carefully constructed sets and the way light shines so perfectly on every object the characters interact with, the film is a visual masterwork. Director Anna Biller, who also wrote the script, edited the film, decorated the sets, and made the costumes, has brought to life an aesthetic vision unlike anything else made this year. Every frame is glorious, the cinematography so absurdly beautiful, an audience is hypnotized. Transfixed by such a magnificent visual work, we’re taken along for a ride for a film about a witch who endlessly seduces men and then, when each one inevitably disappoints her, kills them.
The specificity and careful construction of The Love Witch goes beyond the visuals of Biller’s design work and the cinematography of M. David Mullen. The film features stylization in the performances and the script, as well. The Love Witch is built around its lead, Elaine, played by Samantha Robinson. Robinson has one of the most intriguing and delightful performances of the year, the tone of her voice is always achingly sweet, her inflection dripping with what sounds like naïveté. Her eyes, though, and the way her face reacts to whatever information she processes, show a complex inner working. Elaine is a layered and calculated performance. Each line feels carefully considered, but also impossibly innocent, even when its clear she’s lying. Robinson is marvelous, so radiant in the role that we understand completely why every single man who sees her can’t help but turn their head as she passes. The men she takes up affairs with are perfect: each one so clearly out of their league, understanding so little of what Elaine might be as a person, content to meet a woman who finally seems to understand them, even if they only think that because she knows what they want: a hollow vessel of a woman who only cares about pleasing them. She is so perfectly what these men want her to be, they can’t handle it. They become pathetic, an embodiment of everything they chastise women for being: overly emotional, clingy, needy. Vulnerable. After she sleeps with a college professor, his emotions run high as they lay in bed and he clutches his blankets. “All the girls I’m attracted to aren’t smart enough,” he whines, holding back tears. “And all the bright ones are too homely.” Elaine strokes his shoulder, “Poor baby. That must be so hard.” He nods as it all starts to come out. “It is,” he sobs. The masculine ego and narcissism of maleness are revealed for the truly pathetic attributes they are. He’s failed her.
The men cast around Elaine are deliciously goofy. Dumb grins plaster their faces as they stare at her, intentionally stilted line readings coming off more and more pathetic the more the men are contextualized. But The Love Witch isn’t completely a female empowerment fantasy. It challenges itself to be more complex than that, as even the coven Elaine comes from is controlled by a man who explains that, in order to serve as witches and gain power, they must keep themselves physically beautiful and appear to be submissive to men, as their sexuality is where their power comes from. Aspects of that may be true, but when he feels free reign to touch and kiss the beautiful witches who surround them, to stare at them as they lie vulnerable in front of them, his controlling nature is revealed to be the same as every other man in the film. He looks at women no differently. He is creepy and off-putting, and the most gorgeous women in the world women hang off his every word.
Biller directs The Love Witch as purposefully as she crafted the costumes and sets, and it moves at its own unique pace, less narratively driven than indulgent in watching Elaine purposefully and confidently move forward. She moves from man to man, a never-ending search after her ex-husband, another good looking guy with a silly grin, left her. He often chided her for being overweight and not maintaining their home to his liking. He left her for another woman, and then turned up dead under mysterious circumstances that Elaine claims to know nothing about. As a result of its loose utilization of traditional narrative drive, the film’s two hour runtime may feel a tad longer. The film is a very funny one, but at the same time, sometimes the laughter in the theater around me felt more like it was coming from discomfort, rather than a genuine comedic beat. Scenes in The Love Witch can be challenging, but that might be my favorite thing about it. When it provides a sequence that feels unnatural or off, that might make an audience feel nervous. The film doesn’t hold our hands and come to a resolution that makes everything feel okay. Rather, it delves deeper into the hypnotic, the off-kilter, the strange. Its final sequence features fascinating sound design where we hear the clopping of a horse’s hooves as Elaine is led into the woods by her Prince Charming, her idealized little girl fairy tale vision feels insidious, Biller’s filmmaking makes it all just slightly off-putting. We hear the rustling of fabric, but we see joyous people around them, some playing instruments, but there is so much silence where there should be sound. That fairy tale vision is poisoned by something. Maleness infects that fantasy from the very start. For a film to be this uniquely itself, such the specific vision it is, is an accomplishment and a success. For it to be all that and also the most stunningly gorgeous looking film released in 2016 make it one of the most worthwhile moviegoing experiences of the year. Abandon preconceptions and ties to conventional cinematic storytelling, and indulge in the fascinating feminist spectacle that is The Love Witch.