The Love Witch (2016)

Like an Apple product, sometimes a movie is so married to its form that it forgets its supposed function. The Love Witch is about woman, Elaine (Samantha Robinson; Sugar Daddies), that casts love spells on men, has sex with them, and then they die because they “love her so much”.  After moving to town, Elaine cycles through brief affairs searching for her true love.

The film strives to be knowing satire but falls completely flat. Director/writer/producer/production designer/costume designer/editor/composer Anna Biller (Viva) clearly loves films of the 1960s and shows that passion in her attention to detail in the sets of the film. Unfortunately, this precision did not extend into the performances or writing. Characters deliver exaggerated dialogue with self-satisfied theatrical overacting.  They might as well look directly into the camera and wink as they hint that you should be laughing after each line is spoken. The cast has stated that because the film was low budget, they were usually only able to do one take and it clearly shows. The performances are obviously rushed and unrefined. Biller either lacked the time or the strong hand needed to improve their acting and without it, the intended humor fails miserably.

Comedic problems aside, it’s difficult to not love the visuals. The film was shot on 35mm and, unlike most, was actually processed through photochemical coloring rather than the standard digital intermediate. The cinematographer also used lenses from the 70s and netting over the lenses that give the images a softer look. Even though the story clearly takes place in present day, due to the presence of smartphones and modern cars, the main cast and the set dressings use deliberately retro stylings. The result is a vibrant landscape of eye-popping colors that perfectly replicate early Technicolor films.

The film's beautiful visuals are its best asset.
The film’s beautiful visuals are its best (and perhaps only) asset.

Within the layers of artifice, there is a parable about gender. The film tackles relationships and the conflicting societal ideals of female sexuality. Elaine’s friend is more traditional and only engages her husband when she wants whereas Elaine’s philosophy is to open herself up to a man physically above all else. Her beliefs represent the female sexual empowerment movement of the 1970s taken to the logical extreme. Is she taking control of her own body or just giving into male fantasy? Are the people that reinforce her behavior helping her or just creating a new form of subservience?  Biller leaves these questions not only unanswered but underdeveloped. A definitive stance isn’t needed, but the ideas are neglected in favor of poor attempts at comedy. While her intent is laudable, the director never expands her thoughts enough to be intellectually engaging.

It’s a shame that such technical talent and painstaking effort are wasted. A film with these aesthetics and design is a refreshing break from the often hyperreal visuals provided by the 4k, 5k, and even 6k cameras used today. Biller’s extreme dedication to creating her vision is also praiseworthy, but the film never succeeds as a whole. There were some laughs in my theater, but the majority of the audience was silent and Biller’s thoughts on gender are only fleeting. Despite its noble goals and meticulous craft, The Love Witch is a dull pastiche stuffed with bad acting delivered with an increasingly irritating smugness.

1/5 stars.

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