Pop culture has been rather attuned to certain gender-related events of late–chiefly, Hillary not getting elected. Anna Biller’s sixth film, The Love Witch (a triumph she wrote, directed and produced), speaks to the constant push and pull of being a woman who wants to both be desired and loved by men, while also wanting nothing more than to be herself. Sadly, a woman who is “herself” rarely seems to be attractive to a man. At least, this is how self-declared love witch (“I’m every man’s fantasy!”) Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) feels after being rejected by her ex-husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak), whom she lived with in Berkeley before fleeing from her heartbreak–and murder–to San Francisco to become a dancer with her friend/fellow witch, Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum).
Through various auditory flashbacks (a strong testament to the sound editing of the film), we’re given insight into Jerry’s verbal abuse–“tame-ified” with calm tones. As he “gently” warns her about her waning appearance, the past few terrible meals she’s cooked and the unkempt state of her home, it’s clear that even though the narrative is set in the present, Biller is still using the hyper-caricaturized portrait of the only thing women are good for–sex and cleaning–from the 60s and 70s archetypes (from which she borrows plenty of pastiche) of housewifery. Somewhat tragically, these cliches are still applicable today, especially to Elaine and her specific methods of pleasing and seducing. But as she’s on the run from her latest love victim, Jerry, she remarks, “You can never assert yourself too much with men. You have to be kind of tricky,” it’s obvious Elaine is more about receiving her own pleasure for an ephemeral thrill than giving it to others. And it is in this way that Biller also speaks to that much reiterated trope about women: they’re sex-hungry succubi sent to distract and destroy.
Elaine isn’t without a touch of empathy though, insisting, “My therapist says I’m fine. That I’m just like everyone else whose had to deal with far worse abuse than I have.” But when you’re as sensitive and attuned to love as Elaine, it’s easy to feel abused, like a bottomless pit who can never absorb enough love.
On her way to Eureka (big up to NorCal) to re-achieve some anonymity after being questioned by the SFPD for homicide, Elaine is pulled over by a handsome officer named Griff (Gian Keys), who lets her go after informing her of a broken tail light. With that, she continues on her way to the apartment she’s taking over from Barbara, rented to her by a “business-oriented” interior designer, Trish (Laura Waddell).
From the moment the two come into contact with one another, it’s apparent Biller is presenting us with the supposed contrasts of the “womanhood” spectrum: either the female who lives to serve a man or the one who doesn’t.
When Trish accompanies Elaine to a vividly garish Victorian tea room (made all the more vivid by 35mm) for ladies–complete with angelically garbed harpist and all–Elaine chides Trish for her overt lack of interest in catering to her husband of ten years, Richard (Robert Seeley). Trish merely rolls her eyes, suggesting, “Seems to me you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” And yes, how else can Trumpettes be explained?
Regardless of Trish’s opinion, Elaine remains single-minded in her pursuit of love, casting a spell that finds her lying in the center of a pentagram chanting, “Love me, love me, love me.” After all, as Elaine explains, “Witchcraft is just concentrating energy.” And the energy she chooses to concentrate is on Wayne Peters (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a local professor of eighteenth century English and French literature, while in the park. Locking eyes with him from afar as he aloofly talks to one of his students, Elaine manages to instantly finagle an invitation to his cabin in the woods, assuring him, “I’ll cook you dinner.”
And, oh, cook for him she does, preparing dick-shaped steaks in a pan after dosing him with some homemade hallucinogenic cocktail. Upon carrying out every step of seduction, Elaine “allows” Wayne to make love to her, but only after does it become overt that he’s “a pussy,” as he bellyaches about his love for her and how usually once a woman has sex with him, she expects him to make “a bunch of promises.” The fact that she’s supposedly not like that endears her even more to him. So it goes that Elaine persists in her killing spree of causing men to love so much that they die from it–an inverse stereotype when one thinks of all the stories detailing women being the ones willing to die for love (just listen to Garbage’s “#1 Crush”).
Disappointed in the reaction she gets from Wayne (pussydom rather than masculinity and disinterest), the love witch moves on to Trish’s husband out of boredom, waiting for a quote unquote real man to truly whet her appetite. Turns out Griff, that police officer who pulled her over before, has been promoted to a high rank at the station, and gets put on the investigation of Wayne’s murder, leading him straight to Elaine. This time, however, it seems the love witch has met her match, with Griff delivering an interior monologue while engaging in a faux wedding to her at a renaissance fair/solstice party that rivals Marcello’s in La Dolce Vita, musing on how a woman can only become less appealing to a man the more he learns about her, though the opposite is true for women. And the more she tries to love him, the more it feels like he’s “suffocating” and “drowning in estrogen.” Alas, Elaine, even in the end, must rely on her fantasy of a relationship in order to feel any sense of fulfillment. So it goes for most women sustaining themselves on a steady diet of delusions built by societal expectations ingrained early on, films, music and, sometimes, even books.
With lush set designs, costumes and makeup–mostly all created by the hands of Biller–The Love Witch is the commentary on the male-female dynamic we needed to round out the ultimate gender imbroglio of 2016, offering satirical insight into the age-old battle of sexes, essentially boiling down to an inequity between what women want and what men can give. It’s just a shame that Biller couldn’t afford to cast Lana Del Rey in the lead role; her aesthetic and deadpan delivery would have far outshone Robinson’s.