The Love Witch is a fireworks display of movie ecstasy. As self-consciously retro as all of Tarantino, it’s stuck out of time. Any single frame might suggest an especially lavish-but-forgotten collaboration between C-grade horror maestros Roger Corman and Mario Bava, with a behind-the-scenes assist from sexploitation auteur Doris Wishman. (Its soundtrack, again besting Tarantino, is a collection of Ennio Morricone B-sides.) Shot in eye-popping, rainbow-saturated Technicolor on 35-milimeter celluloid and edited to the same stilted rhythms of mid-century shlock, it’s a masterpiece of deep-cut pastiche. Actors are lit a touch too brightly, voices are overdubbed, and the camera lingers more than a few seconds too many on mundane activity. (If someone, say, parks a car and walks indoors, don’t count on a cut.) It’s a startlingly convincing recreation, all the way down the piercing misogyny.
The only hint that we’re in 2016 and not 1966 is how deeply that sexism penetrates. About a Wiccan temptress and her blood-soaked quest to find “a man to love, take care of, make feel like a man, and give total freedom in whatever he wants to do or be,” it’s a deliberately retrograde premise that exposes the inherent misogyny of cinema’s male gaze and offers a renegade-feminist counter-myth. After the initial novelty fades and we settle into the movie’s familiar groove, its superficial parody gives way to a Godard-ian manifesto in reverse. (A mid-movie lesson delivered straight into the lens bulldozes the over-earnest goofiness of the Maoist avant-garde.)
Anna Biller (who wrote, directed, produced, edited, designed, and scored) has posited The Love Witch as an answer to and extension of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking work in feminist film theory, most directly the 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey pathologized cinema as inherently patriarchal; she set out to de-fetishize the male gaze, expose it, liberate the female form, and ignite a cultural revolution. Her target was “passionate detachment,” and The Love Witch is, almost to a fault, passionately detached. Like Todd Haynes, whose rigorously formal applications of queer film theory (Safe, I’m Not There, Carol) liberated an entire discourse, Biller is an academic at heart. The long-standing (and ridiculous) argument against Haynes is that his semiotic background prevents emotional investment—that his movies are too cold. And, at times, The Love Witch’s assiduously clinical formalism lends it an aloof remove. (That it’s over two hours long doesn’t help.) But, like Haynes at his best, The Love Witch is as much a work of scopophilia as it is of cinephila—not just in love with movies, but ecstatic for the act of watching. An exquisitely orgasmic ode to visual pleasure, The Love Witch plants one stiletto in the brain and the other in the groin. Let the revolution begin.
The Love Witch. Directed and written by Anna Biller. Starring Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, and Laura Waddell. Screens in Kansas City December 3 at the Screenland Armour.