Arts & Culture News

Sympathy for the Devil: The Love Witch Conjures a Feminist Femme Fatale

“It’s time to get a little sympathy for women,” says filmmaker Anna Biller from her California home. “Women are great, even when they’re awful.”

We’re chatting about her latest work The Love Witch, a technicolor kiss blown toward female-centric thrillers like Repulsion and Marnie — the kinds of films that allowed women to tumble as deeply into the sociopathic void as men, and to look better doing it. Biller has spent the last seven years working on the project, which will have a three-day run at Texas Theatre this weekend.

She’s used the time to create an exceptionally immersive hunting ground for her titular character Elaine — a newly-single witch who’s back on the scene, searching for love.

It’s quickly revealed that since her husband’s mysterious death, Elaine has taken control of her life through the occult. Until now, everything’s been coming up swords. But all that’s about to change: She’s refabricated her existence as a vessel for “love.” And for Elaine, love is her due. It’s her payment owed in exchange for giving a man his ultimate fantasy.

Biller’s tongue-and-cheek take on female manipulation is a sardonic jab to the ribs of gender posturing. And after arming her monster with plenty of bait — home cooked meals, love potions, wigs and lingerie — Biller sets her witch loose on a town of overly eager men. But they can’t keep up.

As one dies upstairs, Elaine is sitting on a couch, rolling her eyes. He screams for her. Elaine’s interior monologue is priceless. It’s a play on that point in courtship where power has flipped. She’s gone from being wanted to being needed, and she doesn’t like it. Not one bit.

“What a pussy. What a baby,” she thinks. “He’s just like a little girl. No one ever comforted me when I cried my eyes out …”

Oddly, this is when you fall in love with Elaine. She’s her very best when she’s at her very worst, frustrated and annoyed by these weak men who just keep dying on her. For Biller, that was the goal.

“I want to make us ask, ‘What’s going on inside of the sex siren, or the bitch, or the woman you’re scared of? Maybe she’s never been taken seriously or never gotten any breaks.’”

There’s a laugh-out-loud scene where Elaine is burying a lover and her mind drifts off to think about how much she misses her dead cat. It’s bizarrely hilarious, ultra-feminine and also shows us the lengths this character will go to so she can ignore the ugliness directly in front of, or rather, beneath her.

“Her world is more positive than what men would attribute to her,” explains Biller. “In a man’s movie, she’s just evil. But her interior thoughts are not very dark and evil actually. I think a lot of women are like that: They’re trying to create all of this beauty in the world and it isn’t appreciated.”

If anyone can appreciate the effort required to create beauty, it’s filmmaker Anna Biller. The Love Witch is simply covered in, if not held upright by, her fingerprints. She wrote, directed and produced it.

And to stop there would be impressive, but that’s not Biller’s style. She also gathered or built nearly all of her own sets and props. She designed and sewed the costumes, found her shooting locations, painted much of the artwork filling the walls, looped a rug and even composed the musical scores for the film’s live instrumental scenes.

The result is so detail-rich that it’s like entering a multi-chambered genie bottle, a hyper-designed environment that perfectly supports and projects Elaine’s warped perspective. It’s her psychotic wonderland where she’s free to roam, bait, trap and bury — all while bathed in soft, flattering lighting.

Shot entirely on 35mm by cinematographer M. David Mullen, the film is a love letter to camera techniques of a pulpy, vintage era. And according to Biller, going this route wound up costing about the same as sticking with digital. Since fewer people still choose film, the cameras are almost free to use. “So really you’re paying for the lenses,” she explains. “And in post they charge by the foot and not by the hour.”

To keep her filmroll to a minimum length and her costs low, she detailed each element of each shot in advance and tried to grab everything in one or two takes, which also cut down on time on set. Fortunately, Biller says, her actors really took to the “enchanted setting” she created for them and the work just oozed right out.

“Besides,” she explains, “the color captured on negatives in film is so good.”

That color is at its juiciest here. The same way genre purists love the snaps of a record, you get all of those warm little visual warbles woven into The Love Witch. Biller took her passion of classic style full circle and cut her own visual negative — a very hands-on vintage approach that really isn’t done anymore. It required sourcing materials that barely exist in 2016, but that’s the level of control Biller chose for her work. She wants her villain preserved so that she may charm and kill with equal beauty well down the road — just as she does today.

The Love Witch plays at Texas Theatre (231 W. Jefferson Blvd.) Friday, Nov. 18, through Wednesday, Nov. 23. Tickets are $10 at
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Jamie Laughlin
Contact: Jamie Laughlin