In her Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag observes: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ The object, ensconced in quotations, invites both amusement and scepticism: the former, from the disparity between the object as we know it in the real world and the recontextualised object on screen; the latter, from the self-awareness of this posturing—why is this “lamp” presented thus? Am I supposed to take this “lamp” seriously? This “woman”?
Anna Biller’s The Love Witch plays like a campy object in quotation marks. The film has the look of a Jacques Demy musical tempered by 1970s giallo, its kaleidoscopic palette rendered even more auratic by Biller’s use of 35mm film. Like her 2007 sexploitation parody Viva, The Love Witch relies on its vintage surface and character tropes to create a familiar bank of cinematic vocabulary, but Biller is much more interested in complicating expectation than merely subverting it. We follow the beautiful Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch who has just left San Francisco for a small Northern Californian town in the aftermath of a failed relationship. She spends the film seducing various men (a professor, her neighbour’s husband, a detective) with spells and libations, leaving misery and dead bodies in her wake. There are immediately discernible conceits that are tempting to pack into dichotomies—the puritanical streak in traditional Americana vs. the “empowerment” of female sexuality; stoic masculinity vs. female hysteria—but Biller avoids streamlining her ideas, eschewing an easily digestible argument for a strange and nuanced deconstruction of contemporary feminism and all its conflicting precepts.
Part of the camp object’s appeal, Sontag notes, is its self-serious extravagance. Biller hyperbolises Elaine to the point of caricature, her unbridled sensuality and commitment to glamour signalled in every sheer negligee, every colour-coordinated crescent of bright eyeshadow. That Biller wrote, directed, produced, edited, and decorated the film is impressive but not surprising, considering its distinctive tone. The look is nostalgic but anachronistic, people and places accessorised by ’70s occult paraphernalia, Victoriana and Renaissance fare. One almost expects Biller to have hand-calligraphed Elaine’s giant spellbook (she did), and to have hand-sewn Elaine’s costumes and elaborate pentagram rug (which she also did). Elaine’s extravagance pointedly teeters into absurdity, and when she is eyelash-batting or skirt-lifting mid-seduction, it all becomes very, very funny. But why, Biller wants to know, do we find the idea of an unabashedly glamorous woman so ridiculous?
Elaine externalises the confusion involved in navigating a world where women are expected to accommodate and partake in a narrative of male fantasy. Over tea with her mousy neighbour, Trish (Laura Waddell), Elaine confesses that understanding men amounts to little more than “giving them what they want”, to which an outraged Trish replies, “but what about what we want?” It’s the emphasis on this concerted choice—Elaine wants to give men what they want —that shifts Trish to a more agnostic position. In their relationship, Biller flags the liberal inclination to conflate feminism with the autonomy of individual choice. In choosing to pander to male desire, Elaine acquires a contingent power. We are told that her impetus is simply a desire to be loved, and that she uses sex as a conduit for this ultimate fantasy of love. We are also shown that Elaine seems to take pleasure in her sexual objectification. But we are left to wonder the extent to which these male and female fantasies are contiguous.
These fantasies do, however, obviously diverge on the question of emotional receptivity. Through her magic, Elaine inflicts that great burden of feeling on her victims. Biller captures these lovesick men in the throes of their teary, sentimental overpouring with a comical distance that denies empathy. It would seem that Elaine’s vulnerability drives her to mock men for externalising the very emotions they seem to find repulsive in her. None of the bewitched men can process the operatic height of their feelings, a “weakness” that becomes physiological when they, literally, die. Griff (Gian Keys), Elaine’s square-jawed detective boyfriend, punches a co-worker who dares accuse him of falling in love.
Translating the metaphorical weaknesses of masculinity to literal weakness in death feels pretty explicit, but the film has still been deemed something “straight guys will misread”. Biller knows this, likely from the many one-dimensional readings of Viva that saw little beyond its parodic surface. But breadcrumbs are always there for the savvy. In The Love Witch, Biller consciously provides different cues for different audiences to read its gender dynamics, culminating in a film that’s intentionally easy to misconstrue, like a “satire” in quotation.
The danger of having such an obvious tonal reference to Technicolor melodrama is that we might miss the one reading of the film Biller doesn’t want us to—that her work is beautiful. In an interview with Jezebel, she confesses, “I still get called a B-director or like I’m doing shlock or spoof […] No matter how beautiful I make it, people are still calling it that”. In this minefield of interpretation, Biller’s visual sincerity is supplemented by the undeniable erotic sincerity that comes from the human response to skin and flesh. Samantha Robinson’s Elaine is obviously, self-consciously beautiful. The slope of a sheer garter-clad thigh is clearly intended to arouse. Biller’s challenge of the surface dares us to be mesmerised without being beguiled, and to parse the realm of female agency without demonising its contradictions.
You can read our interview with Anna Biller here.
Around the Staff