“What you call love is a borderline personality disorder… or worse!”
Few central characters — or films — announce themselves as strongly as Samantha Robinson’s femme fatale Elaine, driving into a small town in a scarlet sports car (with matching lipstick, luggage and cigarette case), fixing the audience with an unblinking gaze. She acts like a feminist hero, in single-minded pursuit of her own fulfilment, but talks like a would-be Stepford Wife, devoting her every waking moment to getting a man — though the ones she gets inevitably disappoint, and she has witchy means of disposing of them or getting them to dispose of themselves before she moves on. She’s almost a female counterpart to the family values serial killer of 1987’s The Stepfather, focused on the appearance of happiness and the American dream but driven to punish those who can’t join in her fantasy.
One of the most gorgeous films of recent years.
Director-writer-producer-editor Anna Biller (Viva) also puts together the soundtrack (which includes catchy, sinister folk-rock anthem Love Is A Magical Thing), decorates the sets and handcrafts many of the props. Like Whit Stillman, John Waters or Wes Anderson, she creates and populates her own self-contained, richly imagined film universe, with a fetishist reverence for 1960s and ’70s design, costume and bric-a-brac. Few films contain as many seductive things — a carpet with a magic circle, Elaine’s outfits, wallpaper, cakes — and work them into the texture of the film. Biller casts people who have the clean-cut faces of vintage soap-opera stars and has them act with chilling, persuasive understatement that’s creepier than full-on shrieking. Tone and pace are even — perhaps too much so, since the tightly plotted film clocks in at two hours, as if Biller the editor met a self-imposed ritual requirement.
The Love Witch offers a great deal of deadpan comedy between charms and horrors. Star (Elle Evans) and Moon (Fair Micaela Griffin), the lookalike blonde Wiccans who become terrible if eye-catching burlesque dancers after their coven initiation, are drily hilarious, and Jared Sanford is a hoot as the lecherous warlock Elaine repeatedly freezes out as he harps on about sensual excess.
Most of the action takes place in a few extraordinary institutions which stress ritual and romance: a women-only Victorian tea room, a burlesque dance bar (patronised by drunken witch-haters), a renaissance fair which doubles as a witches’ coven, even the police station where the strong coffee is equivalent to Elaine’s philtres of “hallucinogenic herbs”. It’s eerily minimalistic and so suggestive of a bygone time that it’s a shock half-way through when Elaine’s possible nemesis/would-be doppelgänger Trish (Laura Waddell) pulls out a mobile phone to take a call, revealing that this isn’t a period-set movie after all — as if Elaine has by force of will made a whole community live in her own design-fetish world the way Biller has stocked her filmic doll-house with beautiful puppets. And somehow it works — one of the most gorgeous films of recent years.