2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Nine – THE LOVE WITCH
Day nine of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival found me joining friends to see Anna Biller’s formalistically retro film THE LOVE WITCH. The theater was almost full and the audience was very receptive to its charms. It’s pretty much an excellent midnight movie that really plays well on the big screen.
I don’t think there actually was a 1960s witch sexploitation genre. If there was, please feel free to let me know what films I should seek out, albeit certainly there’s a bit of BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE here as well as THE DEVIL RIDES OUT in the mix. Still, THE LOVE WITCH is more or less an ode to an imaginary genre. But, Anna Biller’s vision rings true in every sense, from the faux Technicolor, to the lighting design, to the rear projection driving scenes, to the over the top costumes, to the free love sixties color scheme, to the out of date hairstyles, to its deliberately cheesy foley work. It’s a technical marvel from top to bottom. The male leader of the local coven looks like Tim Burton in what must have been a deliberate choice. In an alternate universe, this could have been a Tim Burton film.
The story line follows a witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson) fleeing from San Francisco to a small town from a failed relationship. It’s clearly evident that he last relationship involved abuse, at least on an emotional level that has left her damaged. Now, she’s presenting herself as every male’s fantasy and using love potions and spells to just find a man to love her with all his body and soul. But her potions are too strong and just leave the men a quivering mess of emotions that invariably end up dead. And pretty soon a handsome police detective is hot on her trail, if he doesn’t fall under her spells himself.
That’s the straightforward synopsis anyways. What that synopsis doesn’t tell you is that Anna Biller treats these goings on with more than a small dose of kitsch and camp. The stilted dialogue, not so subtle innuendo, and the fact that the style is 1960s while it is obviously set in modern day was an endless source of amusement by the audience. The camera also absolutely loves Samantha Robinson. It’s not camp with no purpose, as the film makes it absolutely clear that what Elaine doesn’t need is “love” based on a fantasy idea of passion and subservience, but love based on mutual respect and interests. It’s clear that her past abuse has warped her in ways that are damaging others and herself. There’s a very clear message here amidst the winking.
In fact, the message is so clear that THE LOVE WITCH with its two hour running time ends up dragging while we wait for it to get to its final point. Every scene is a testament to Anna Biller’s control of the medium, but this is a film that really could stand to lose 15 minutes or so. There really aren’t layers and layers to delve into and there were reasons that genre films of the 1960s were often closer to 90 minutes. It’s a thin story stretched to its limits.
Still, it’s really worth seeing with a crowd on as big a screen as you can find. It’s a visual treat from beginning to end and I’m certain we’ll see more from Anna Biller as there’s a ton of visual flair on display. She’s a director that has clearly learned the right lessons from Tim Burton, there’s a definite reason behind her visual choices, without being a copy. And the feminist message rings true while still making Elaine a character of some depth and complexity. It’s part of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival’s Cinema Hooligante program and a perfect example of what a midnight movie can be, it’s both fun and artistically ambitious. It may not fully grasp those ambitions, but it’s certainly a unique, memorable film.
THE LOVE WITCH has had its last showing at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival but it’s certain to hit home video in the not too distant future. The 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival runs through October 6th with plenty of more films showing. Tickets are available at Milwaukee Film’s website.