Anna Biller wrote, directed, edited, produced, art directed, designed the sets and costumes and even composed the music for The Love Witch, opening November 11 at the San Francisco Landmark theatre. And the film is a triumph of style. When Elaine (Samantha Robinson) drives her cherry red convertible out of San Francisco to redwood country to start a new life in a cherry red dress, with her cherry red purse, and cherry red suitcases, viewers who give themselves over to the spell being cast will enjoy the film’s campy, Technicolor romantic thriller.
However, there are sure to be some viewers who will actively resist the film’s artifice, and who will find the stilted acting and cheesy qualities to be more than they can bear. For all its visual opulence, The Love Witch is sluggishly paced and some of the set pieces—particularly those in a burlesque house, or at a Renaissance fair—simply go on too long. It is as if Biller is dragging things out deliberately so viewers can concentrate on the fabulous sets and costumes that she spent time creating, and allow the actors’ dialogue and line readings to be funny—or flat in the hope that they turn funny again.
The story is none too complex. Elaine, a witch, is moving on after the death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak, seen only in flashbacks). She has been a suspect in his murder, but there was not enough evidence to charge her. Arriving in a new town, Elaine befriends her landlord, Trish (Laura Waddell), and they discuss what men and women want in terms of sex and love, each holding onto a romantic ideal. While Trish is happily married to Richard (Robert Seeley), the single Elaine wants love with “a beautiful, sweet man who loves me as I love him.” She soon goes on a manhunt, setting her sights on Wayne ( Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a ruggedly handsome university professor.
One of the best scenes has Elaine seducing Wayne in his cabin, after giving him a potion to drink that contains a hallucinogen. Their love scene, filled with psychedelic visual effects, is both sexy and trippy. But things get icky when Wayne dies, and Elaine creates a “witch bottle” using both her urine and a bloody tampon.
While Elaine goes after another man—Trish’s bland husband Richard, in fact—Griff (Gian Keys), a hunky, square-jawed police detective in a natty suit, starts investigating Wayne’s death, and comes into contact with Elaine. Of course, the detective falls under Elaine’s spell, questioning her guilt despite the circumstantial evidence against her.
The Love Witch does not create much suspense as Trish makes some disturbing discoveries, or as Griff excuses his new girlfriend’s questionable behavior. Biller is more interested in playing with the tropes of the genre than in crafting a sophisticated story. As such, lengthy scenes of naked worshippers chanting and dancing or performing ritualistic acts stretch out the film for little dramatic purpose.
There is, however, considerable discussion about witchcraft and how it is a response to men’s fear of women’s sexuality, as well as how witches use their power to “take what they want” from men. These are not uninteresting feminist ideas, but as they are spoken in The Love Witch, they lose some of their power and meaning. This is, in part, because Samantha Robinson spouts some of Elaine’s rhetoric in such a wooden manner. It may be intended to be tongue-incheek, but it misses more than hits.
Biller’s efforts to play with the masculine characters—as when Elaine’s witchcraft turns Wayne into an emotional wimp—fare better. A scene of Richard being crazed with obsession for Elaine is also amusing. Alas, The Love Witch does not maximize the sexual tension between Griff and Elaine, putting them in King and Queen roles in a mock marriage rather than playing up the sexual magnetism between these very attractive leads. Moreover, the film sadly misses the opportunity to have predator and prey exchange witty and naughty double entendres instead of rings.
And this is perhaps why Biller’s film is best in part, not as a whole. While there are many terrific background elements—Elaine’s tarot-card inspired painting, burlesque dancers, and the giant goblets and magic potions—there is not enough emotion at the heart of the story. Elaine is certainly an intriguing character, but Robinson’s performance is best when she is playing the seductress with Wayne and Richard. When she acts all innocent towards Griff or Trish, whom she has betrayed, the comic verve is missing, even if the style is all wink-wink.
The Love Witch is not without merit, but its ambitions exceed its success. Biller gets all the details right, but it still comes off that she is trying too hard. See for yourself and meet Biller too, as she will be in attendance 11/12 at the Opera Plaza and 11/13 at the Shattuck in Berkeley.
© 2016 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.”