“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” So reads the 1486 treatise Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer), also known as the witch-hunt manual that perpetuated the image of the witch as a phallus-stealing, sexually perverse puppet of Satan. A manifestation of the fear of female power and sexuality, the text became a justification for the persecution and murder of “wicked” women. Anna Biller toys with this fear in her new Technicolor horror film, The Love Witch, revealing the still-lingering anxieties culture harbors about female sexuality and power. A cinephilic homage to the sexploitation films of the 1970s, Biller’s sensual and symbol-laden sophomore film goes beyond pastiche to outright subvert the gender politics within the genre, presenting a stunning portrait of female power and madness.
Punctuated by high-toned pops of tarot red, the film opens with a woman named Elaine driving along a winding coastal road away from San Francisco, where, as is revealed in flashbacks, she may or may not have murdered her abusive husband, Jerry. Elaine’s retreat upstate holds the promise of a new life—a fresh start among the redwoods, where she can paint, find love, and unravel. After all, it is the home of Barbara and Gahan, the couple who initiated her into witchcraft; an act that she later states saved her life. Upon arriving at her new home (imagine a manicured version of the mansion in Deep Red), Elaine’s foil, Trish, greets her, blurting out admiration of Elaine’s beauty before backtracking, laughing, “I didn’t mean anything. I’m married and everything,” a detail that comes to be a source of destabilizing envy.
For a while, Elaine is content to amuse herself with teatime talk about gender politics, making potions, and seducing a couple of men. “Oh, Elaine! I’m scared,” cries out Wayne, her first miserable lover, “I’m not used to feeling things so strongly. I can’t take it. I can’t take it. Elaine, I’m sick. I’m sick.” Her response to his wails—“What a pussy. What a baby.... No one was ever there when I cried my heart out. No one ever comforted me”—demonstrates a remove that, as chilling as it is, sets into motion an even more horrific tragedy of self that comes from a shattered sense of reality.
As the line between seemingly well-intentioned love magic and psychological cruelty blurs, it’s important to note that Elaine came to witchcraft through domestic abuse. Like sunglasses over a black eye, Elaine’s possessed preoccupation with procuring a fantasy love only thinly veils her longing to rewrite the domestic tragedy of her former relationship. If only she can fulfill every sexual longing, every need within the home, then she can create the perfectly controlled love, a safe love. The problem for Elaine, however, is that the love she creates within her partners turns out to be disorderly, so much so that the power of her partner’s affection threatens to overwhelm the domestic space.
Playing with a common trope of other domestic witch movies (Practical Magic, most directly), the home is a source of female power, the disturbance of which correlates with a breach of the female. Elaine’s distancing from her love objects as they turn obsessive, is in this way, a protective measure. Further contributing to the destabilization of her mental state—something that Biller codes into cleverly inverted symbols of domesticity (food, for example, once a decadent display of performative care, rots)—is Elaine’s lack of a real home. For a witch whose powers come from of her use of household magic—cooking, herbal potions, bath soaps—that she has no central power source subjects her to living within the literal and metaphorical spaces of others—Barbara and Gahan’s apartment, her lover’s house, Trish’s marriage. Elaine’s fantasy world becomes, then, the one place where she has complete control, a reality that she goes mad trying to protect.
The embodiment that Elaine seeks comes in the form of Griff, a cop whose utter disdain for monogamy, and seeming resistance to love magic, contests her manic yearning for lasting love. Following the mock midsummer wedding of Elaine and Griff—an effective commentary on the performance and production of love’s power structures—Elaine momentarily awakens to her delusions. This ruinous realization culminates in a murder scene fit for Jeanne Dielman’s playbook.
While much of the pleasure of the film comes from its satirical elements, playful at times and slyly subversive at others, to classify the film as parody is to miss the point. In The Love Witch, the aesthetic is political. The teas, the decadent cakes, the truly horrifying performance of feminine identity in the form of Trish putting on Elaine’s clothes, wig, and makeup—the inclusion of all these elevate the typically female coded sphere into the traditionally male-dominated, female-exploiting 1970s cult-horror genre—a remarkable accomplishment on the part of Biller. On a larger design scale, despite being set in the present, the styling of the film strongly evokes the 1970s, a not-so-distant period when, still in the early days of the woman’s rights movement, groups like WITCH demanded political change, and sexual liberation held the promise of equality. Still, even with all of empowering imagery within the film, the lingering terror of The Love Witch is that, in the end, despite her powers, men still move on Elaine, tugging at their belts en masse to punish her for her sins against their fellow male. Who can blame her for going mad?