In her second feature film The Love Witch, multi-skilled filmmaker and all-round Renaissance woman Anna Biller—writer, director, producer, editor, production and costumer designer—proves on the back of 2007’s Viva that she is very much an artist with a driving, defining vision. That this vision is both smart and fun makes the experience of watching her films not merely insightful but unambiguously delightful. The Love Witch is a film that is, in many ways, a lot smarter than its deliberately glossy, hyper-stylised surfaces might initially suggest, and this is an extraordinarily refreshing feeling when the opposite is sadly far more common. The Love Witch is the antidote to all those films with pompous, intellectual airs that collapse under the weight of their own smugness when scrutinised.
Growing up among what she has called the “ghosts” of Hollywood filmmaking in Los Angeles, the very materiality of cinema itself—the meat of it, the flesh of it—are central to Biller’s filmmaking practice. Both The Love Witch and Viva were shot on 35mm, and her earlier shorts—A Visit from the Incubus (2001), The Hypnotist (2001) and her first film, Three Examples of Myself as Queen (1994)—were all shot on 16mm. This tangibility and tactility of film also manifests through the lush textures and colours: The Love Witch is a feast for the senses as much as the mind.
It is also very funny. Following the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a 1960s-era witch who employs her craft to make herself irresistible to the opposite sex, the sweetness and sincerity of Robinson’s performance render The Love Witch thoughtful, hilarious and, at times, tragic. A love letter to Technicolor and the vibrant aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s, The Love Witch is the most charming feminist film manifesto of 2016.
As a starting point to those new to your work, The Love Witch is clearly the product of someone with a strong background in visual design. In terms of filmmaking, you are quite the Renaissance woman and have a lot of skills in your toolbox, so I’m fascinated to hear how they all coalesced in your practice. Can you tell me briefly what your background is?
My father is an artist—a painter. So I grew up looking at a lot of art books, and going to a lot of art galleries and museums. And my mother is a fashion designer, so I was always around beautiful fabrics and clothes. I also watched a lot of classic movies growing up, and was fascinated with production design and costumes. In school I did my studies in studio art, and only later in graduate school did I switch to film. I was making experimental art videos and small, handmade Super 8mm films where I’d build little sets and make costumes, and this naturally segued into making “film-films” for me.
Wearing so many (beautiful) hats during the production process with both Viva and The Love Witch, I would assume that the process would be less a traditional collaboration in terms of the major components (writing, directing, production design, editing, etc). When there’s different people in all these roles, there are necessarily times that horns clash and opinions differ, but when it’s just you, do you find the process challenging in other ways (aside from the sheer workload, of course)?
Working on my own during pre-production, sometimes it’s hard to keep the motivation up when the actual physical work becomes too tedious or too demanding. And I’m constantly having new learning curves thrown in, as when, for this film, I had to learn to do left-handed calligraphy for the spell book, hook a rug, and compose for a period wind ensemble. Sewing in particular can get really exhausting. I wish I had an assistant to do hems and things, but my space is not large enough to accommodate two people and I only have one sewing machine.
Sometimes it feels inappropriate how labor-intensive the process is and I feel like Rapunzel sitting sadly in front of a pile of straw that I need to spin into gold, but then again all of this labor gives me time to keep reworking the themes and ideas in the film, which only makes it richer over time. I also would love to have assistants help me pick things I need, but that hasn’t worked so far. Much of the time if I can’t find a kind of fabric or furniture that was in my sketch, I come up with something totally different, but that still works with the fantasy themes I have in my head, which are quite specific. I have no way to explain any of that to an assistant.
I’d like to talk to you a little about your influences: we very much crossed paths due to a shared love of European directors with a distinct visual style and thematic drive (Fassbinder, Borowczyk, Franco, Fulci, etc). I think we also share a real love of Classical Hollywood and the spaces filmmakers found to be subversive when working under the Hays code, when there was so much pressure to steer clear of controversy. How do you find in practice these influences—and others, of course—manifest in your own work? Are there any filmmakers or artists that have influenced you in other ways that do not necessarily seem as apparent in the kinds of films you make?
This is an interesting question. In terms of influences, a lot of people think I am pulling mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s, when most of the time (except for Fassbinder and work from a few other key filmmakers) I am pulling from much earlier films. I love working within the limitations of codes and other strictures. I set my own limits on what I will or will not film. I never use profanity for instance, and I try never to make anything ugly, as if working within a studio system that would require such things. Yet unlike earlier filmmakers, I’m not doing it because I have to, but because I think it makes for better art. I think that when the censorship codes lifted in the late ‘60s everyone started to think that the more ugly, violent, or pornographic something was, the more cutting-edge it was, and we’re still suffering somewhat under that mentality. I’m interested in culture much more than I am interested in the annihilation of culture, so in that sense I am out of time. The filmmakers that have influenced me the most that may not be apparent are Jacques Démy and Joseph Von Sternberg.
The word ‘erotica’ is an eternally fascinating one for me, as it is so culturally loaded—I think, with a lot of these Eurosleaze directors we’re drawn to (Borowczyk, Franco, honorary Eurosleaze director Radley Metzger), there is something proudly ‘pornographic’ about them, but this word seems to actively deny the overwhelming artistry that drives their work. Sexuality is—to put it mildly—a centrepiece of your work that I’d like to talk to you about a little. What do you think is the difference between erotica and pornography? What marks the kind of sexually explicit (be it hard or softcore) work that you are drawn to as a spectator, and how does that influence the way you depict sexuality?
Well, the word pornography is pejorative in the sense that it refers to erotic content with no cultural value. Radley Metzger made hardcore films, but he was trying tell great literary stories and to make sex movies for couples, which was a social and human project, and he had a special interest in giving full agency and dimension to female characters. So I don’t think you could say his films are pornographic even though they are hardcore. Catherine Breillat also makes hardcore films that are not pornographic, because they are academic—they are teaching the audience about female sexuality. In my view, if a film has no thematic, social, political, or cultural value, then it is pornographic. And this applies to both erotic and non-erotic films.
My project is aligned with Catherine Breillat’s in that I am trying to teach about female sexuality, even in areas where it’s uncomfortable or seems regressive—or, especially in those areas, because there are so many misunderstandings and stereotypes about women and sex. We know so much about male sexuality and so little about female sexuality. Sexuality after all is an extension of identity, so we need to see more films where women’s sexuality isn’t just an extension of male fantasy. People think my filmmaking is so bizarre in its ideas, and yet these ideas about female desire and fantasy have been well-known and studied by psychologists for decades—stuff about women being in love with their own image rather than wanting to look at a man, about getting turned on by the level of a man’s desire or by the thought of being passively taken by a man, that kind of thing.
Elaine is a fantastically complex character. From a post-feminist position, she’s so easy at first to dismiss as a comic foil, a kind of Stepford Wife run amok and very much a part of the historical universe that your film is set in. But when considered more closely, I’m struck by how thoroughly likeable and sweet she is, and that she’s not rendered villainous or objectionable because she drank the Stepford Wife Kool-Aid. I’m curious how you went about constructing Elaine in terms of her politics?
Part of the likeability of Elaine is due to Samantha Robinson’s performance. She has a natural sweetness that comes through, and I encouraged her to be true to herself when playing the role. But the script is also sympathetic towards her. Elaine is coping with a history of abuse the best way she knows how. Everything and everyone in society has conspired to make her what she is, so she can’t really be blamed for making the choices she makes. But she is also sociopathic, either from birth or through life experience or both. She is a psychologically realistic, dimensional character, who has been driven crazy just trying to negotiate her place as a woman in the world. I based her character on women I’ve known who have constructed a false self, a mask of beauty and subservience to men that they can’t sustain, so the mask cracks after a while.
Elaine has internalized all of the male animus characters that have blocked her, judged her, and acted upon her in her life, from her father to her husband to the men we see in the film. So although Griff for instance is a romantic, handsome guy, he is also a judge, he refuses to love her, and he represents the law. I think women watching the film are going to viscerally respond to these judges and have sympathy for her struggle, because it’s a struggle we all have with men in our lives.
In terms of the politics of creating a character: although I’m always thinking about politics when I construct a script as a whole, thinking about politics when constructing a character is deadly. It’s why we have so many unrealistic female characters. Characters are people, and people are good and bad, and they don’t neatly represent the ideals that screenwriters may wish to embody.
What remains unrelentingly fascinating about Elaine is despite her actions, she never becomes monstrous. Partially of course this is due to the light-hearted comic tone of the film, but it feels more than that to me: a kind of sympathy to her position, a vague sense memory that I had the same kind of training, and that it remains dormant somewhere in my brain. I had the experience watching the film that this was the case with Trish as well, that as grounded and as comparatively ‘normal’ as she is, there’s a kind of buried level of cult programming that makes Elaine as irresistible conceptually to her as she is sexually to other men.
I do have sympathy for Elaine’s position, because her beauty has taught her hard life lessons which never have to be learned by a man, and has made her the object of abuse by various men in her life. And of course all women are trained to be subservient, to value our looks and the ability to offer sex above anything else, and to not pursue our goals, if not directly than indirectly through the brutality of the culture. So in some twisted way Elaine can be admired because she has succeeded so well in playing the game, in a way that most women are unable to. She has made herself into everything a man could possibly want. But even Elaine can’t do it in the end. Her dilemma—and the dilemma of many women—is that in order to get love from a man, she has to allow herself to be swallowed up in him, and to lose her reflection in the mirror. Men can’t see who she is, even when they’ve drunk her potion. All they can see is their own desire, their own lust, their own suffering. So love makes them not more attached to her, but more self-centered.
As for Trish, she is fascinated with Elaine’s image, and then becomes fascinated with her own image in the mirror. Trish sees the intactness of Elaine’s “beautiful” image as a sort of bravery in standing out and being different that she’s never been able to muster, and she feels empowered when she tries to emulate it. Because you know, that’s another sort of trap women can fall into—the fear of looking sexy because of being disrespected or of making oneself too different from a man. Elaine establishes herself as utterly feminine and distinct from a man and finds strength in that. So there is a double meaning to her mask of beauty: on the one hand it’s a sign of submission to male desire, and on the other hand it’s a costume that establishes her fabulousness as a woman. I tend to think of it more as the latter, especially when she wears costumes that are so strongly the stuff of female fantasy, like her Victorian outfits, which most men would find over-the-top and maybe even a little creepy.
How would you describe the relationship between Viva and The Love Witch, both in terms of the material they address, and in regards to your own artistic practice and what you’ve learned now being on the festival circuit the second time around?
The character Barbi that I play in Viva is a love-starved housewife, and the character of Elaine in The Love Witch is a love-starved witch. They both hit a wall when trying to go out in the world and find what they desire, because men don’t understand them and can’t or won’t give them what they want. Barbi, who is passive, depressed, and has mostly given up on her dreams, is mainly looking for sexual fulfillment, but this fulfillment comes at the price of her safety, her reputation, and her home. Elaine is more aggressive and tactical in her search for love, but is unable to find what she wants because men ultimately are unequal to the task of submitting to her demands.
The Love Witch is more explicit in its themes than Viva, because what I learned on the festival circuit with Viva is that people are very literal-minded and don’t look much at metaphor and symbolism – at least not with my work. I feel I was usually not given the benefit of the doubt when it came to conscious choices I was making. Reviews often spoke of inadvertent meaning, unconscious meaning—or even no meaning—when I worked so meticulously to put all of those ideas there. People also objectified me because I was playing the lead role and there was partial nudity. So I thought, next time I’m not going to act in it, and I’m going to have to put my ideas even more explicitly in the text.
From an industrial perspective how much do you find you get reduced to essentialist ideas about the kinds of films ‘women’ make? I’m consistently struck by the diversity of women’s filmmaking practice (both today and historically), yet this to me feels like it works in opposition to critical and industry tendencies to reduce ‘women’s filmmaking’ almost to its own genre. I’d love to hear your insight and experience on this.
I’ve never been lumped in with other female directors. If anything, I’ve been compared way too much to male filmmakers whom I have little to nothing in common with except visual style. It’s true that women’s filmmaking is incredibly diverse, but I am personally interested in how female consciousness might shape artwork differently, especially in the way female characters are constructed. So I actually would encourage people to try to group women’s films together to see if there are any threads that connect them, and to try to create a sort of canon of women’s films that critics can talk about as women’s films.
One reason I want to be thought of as a female filmmaker is that my work can only be understood in that context. So many critics want to see my work as a pastiche of films that men have created. When they do that, they deny the fact that I am creating my own world, something completely original. Women are so often thought of as being unable to make meaning. So they are allowed to copy what men make—to make a “pastiche” out of what men have created—but not to create original work. My work comes from a place of being female, and rewrites film genres from that place. So it’s essential for me to be placed into a history of female/feminist artmaking practice, otherwise it’s taking the work completely out of context.
I wrote an article earlier this year about Robert Eggers’ The Witch where I argued quite strongly for it as an urgent and timely re-articulation of the figure of the witch as an important symbol for feminine power that has culturally been defanged over recent years; an identity women can adopt and embrace themselves to kind of ‘get in’ before men can try to configure them as monstrous. Elaine in The Love Witch relates to this premise in some pretty complex, fascinating ways: I’m intrigued to hear how you see Elaine in the long history of cinematic witches, from Wizard of Oz to Suspiria to Eggers’ film?
There are two types of cinema witches: the old, ugly hag which is the type featured in most movies and literature, and the young, beautiful siren embodied by Circe and Medea, who appeared in films mostly starting in the ‘60s and was a continuation of the noir femme-fatale siren. I think of all of Bergman’s female characters as witches also, in the siren sense. Elaine is obviously also a siren. But unlike most cinematic witches, who embody male fear of female desirability or ugliness or power, I’m trying to tell her story mostly from the inside. She’s split into two images: the one the world has of her as dangerous and evil, and the one she has of herself, which is resourceful and loving. To the world, her beauty is a source of pain, torture, and bondage; to herself, it’s about trying to construct an identity and create loving bonds. Historically all witches have been interested in and experts on love, so Elaine in that sense is a classic witch.
One last question: I was lucky enough to see Prince earlier this year, and he played his 1996 song ‘The Love We Make’ which includes the line “wicked is the witch that stands for nothing”. Not delving too far into semantics, what to you does Elaine “stand for”?
Elaine stands for the witch as a metaphor for all women—for the split we have as women between our own self-image, and the various images and expectations imposed on us by history, culture, and desire.
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is playing Revelation Perth International Film Festival on July 10, 15 and 17. It is playing the final night of the Queensland Film Festival in Brisbane on July 24, and will be playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival on July 30 and August 11. It previously played at the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in Hobart in April.
For more information, visit Anna Biller’s website.