All words: Alan Pyke
The best artistic use of Tarot symbols in 2016 is this tweet. But second place is now, shockingly, up for grabs.
Just a few months ago, it seemed like Terrence Malick had locked up the two seed with Knight of Cups, the jaggedly meditative fever-dream flick about man-sads and longing and loneliness. But with Friday’s release of The Love Witch, writer-director Anna Biller’s first feature film in 9 years, Malick might be on the outside looking in.
Biller follows a witch named Elaine as she moves into the spare room of a spooky house rented by a Stepford-ish woman named Trish, then moves through a sequence of male archetypes: a Manson-esque professorial hippie called Wayne, a bored straight-laced husband named Richard, and a craggy-faced by-the-book cop named, no shit, “Griff.” The lightning-witted script cloaks arch cynicism about gender politics in the wink-nudge humor of an old B-movie, wringing laughs and cringes alike from a mix of the delightfully sly and thuddingly obvious.
Biller’s high-camp tale of a predatory occultist in 1970s Northern California is scary-good, though you’ll have to get all the way on board with the movie’s obsessively accurate recreation of sexploitation cinema tropes before you walk into the theater.
I’m not even talking about the sordid seduction and naked-witchiness sequences, though there are plenty of each. Biller’s commitment to the genre here is more pathological than that, more obsessive at a filmmaking level. Take any scene of dialogue in the movie to the filmmaking autopsy room, and you’ll find seven cuts back and forth between two actors reacting subtly to… well, sometimes nothing at all.
Scenes that would chew up 30 seconds if they existed at all in most movies of today end up dilating to multiple minutes, often to no purpose other than to let the audience spend more time with the lush, meticulously crafted sets and costumes Biller and her team have ginned up. The audio and visual tracks sometimes seem to be just a hair of a second out of synch, as though the projectionist mismanaged the reels. The acting is intentionally hammy, a choice perfectly in step with the screenwriting itself. (Sample line: “I’m arresting you… for burying Wayne Peters illegally.”) The results may madden some, but lean into the camp recreation of a simpler, doubtless worse time in American movie history and you’ll find it all intoxicating.
Rough-knuckled symbolism drips from the corners of every frame, subtle as a velvet glove around the throat. When Elaine arrives at prim Trish’s place, she’s in a blood-red minidress, all stocking seams and knee-boots and caked-on makeup. Trish greets her in a peach-colored trouser-waistcoat number over a white collared long-sleeve shirt, and the camera cuts around behind to follow the contrasting figures up the walk and into the spooky purple house.
Each character gets a perfectly designed space to match his or her high-symbolism purpose. A professor consulted by police on Elaine’s trail welcomes them to an office drowning in emerald-green leather and velvet, statuettes and academic cliches littering his shelves and desk. Griff’s cop office looks like there are probably seven set techs from Dragnet standing just out of frame, tapping their watches angrily because they need to start shooting this week’s show and the damn witch-movie lady isn’t done with their props and costumes. The lady’s-only tea room where Elaine and Trish dine is all cut crystal, pastel table dressings, and country-club manners. My neck started to itch waiting for someone to break into a Gilbert and Sullivan number.
Cups and swords and suns and rods populate the backgrounds of nearly every shot, in one way or another, and blonde maidens are never far off. It’s tarot all the way down, but produced with a lushness and microscopic eye for detail that would make Douglas Sirk blush (even if he’d shit a brick about the slothful, static camerawork).
The Love Witch is more than camp for camp’s sake, more than a demonstration of elaborate command of the design and production techniques of a bygone era. Biller’s tugging at still-active threads of gender essentialism, and their marring effect both on individual relationships and societal power structures. But like the kaleidoscopes she invokes in a recurring visual effect, what you see and take away from the critique/revenge/elegy mode of social commentary embedded here is a twisting, subjective thing, likely different for everyone who sees it.