Thursday 2 January 2020

On a Thousand Walls #25: The Love Witch (2016)

No film so nails what it feels like right now, how the past haunts the present, as The Love Witch.

No preamble here: there will totally be spoilers.

It's a terrific film, looking for much of its runtime like a loving pastiche of late 60s/early 70s battle-of-the-sexes erotic horror. I mentioned recently that it draws from the same lineage as All the Colours of the Dark, which I'm completely certain is not the only example of the Sexy Psychedelic Occult Freak-Out Movie that The Love Witch draws from (and I wouldn't be surprised if that was a movie that was not consciously drawn from or even seen by Biller, even though the aesthetic similarities are, holy crap, manifold), but it's as good as any as a point of comparison, since it centres around a woman stitched up by the environment she's in. The similarity ends there, as Biller herself has said: the main comparison between all the films like All the Colours of the Dark and The Love Witch can only be made on the grounds that The Love Witch – which Anna Biller wrote, directed, designed the costumes for and composed original music for – is a corrective to those older films, a use of their tropes to give what amounts to an almost entirely opposite intended message.

A lot of retro pastiches take the aesthetic of the films they're copying and marry it directly to a modern idea of pacing and performance. They make a film that couldn't have been made back in the day because, well, that's not really how those films were made. These films look like a memory of the time, rather than the time itself. And that's not a bad thing – for example, Panos Cosmatos's two movies, Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy, do exactly that and it does not harm them one tiny bit. The Love Witch, on the other hand, is unique because while everything about it – or very nearly everything: colour grading, costumes, performances, dialogue, and, crucially, pacing – is absolutely faithful to the age it pastiches, it gradually dawns on you that it is in fact set in 2016.
Pictured: bipperty-bopperty hat. Oh God, I couldn't do better than that.
It's not that 2016 looks like 1970, it's that 2016 has become 1970. People wear the amazing bipperty-bopperty hats and the miniskirts and the knee boots and the perfect period makeup, and talk like they've been overdubbed by affectless, jobbing actors. The first scene of the film shows the protagonist driving a classic red Mustang in front of a deliberately cheesy back projection, and her backstory told in a deliberately cheesy voice over.

But when Elaine (Samantha Robinson) arrives at her new home in some unnamed California college town, and the estate agent, Trish (Laura Waddell), comes to see her, Trish pulls up in a big modern black family car. Modern cars appear in the background. Is this a sign of the cheapness of the film? Laziness? Is this an affectation we just have to get past? But Trish talks about patriarchy in a very Twitter sort of way, and people refer to pop culture from the 70s as if it were in their childhoods (someone talks about seeing Steve McQueen movies as a little kid; Elaine gets called a “Stepford Wife” at one point). The game is comprehensively given away when Trish pulls a smartphone out of her bag and makes a call like it isn't a thing. It isn't an anachronism. We realise that the film is set now.
The settings – the kooky Renaissance fayre, the chintzy Victorian Tea Room, and the burlesque bar – seem of an era, but they're also weirdly now. The very idea of a burlesque bar might be retro, but it is utterly contemporary. Burlesque is exactly part of our haunted culture. It took off at almost exactly the same moment that folk horror did, and it serves a lot of the same purposes: it's retro-themed but resolutely contemporary and used to make contemporary points. In the movie, burlesque performer April Showers plays herself on stage. April Showers might have had a special costume but she could have just as easily walked onto the set with one of her usual stage costumes and it would have fit in. She came from the real world. She drove into this film from down the road. Because it is now. Because in a sense, the real world is a 70s-tinged dayglo dystopia.
Burlesque is a recurring theme in The Love Witch; Elaine, before she started monetising her witchcraft by making artisan soaps and witch bottles (and if that isn't far more about the gig economy than anything from '69-72, I don't know what is) was a burlesque dancer, and we see her seducing a man with a burlesque act as the film goes on. A scene where sincere, serious witch Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) and fruity coven leader Gahan (Jared Sandford) lecture a pair of impressionable blonde twins winds up with the twins doing Occult Burlesque, and if the staff at the bar aren't into it, it's not a 1970 burlesque, it's a 2016 one.

Arguably you could say the whole film is a burlesque act, a sensuous retro-styled dance around its themes, telling a very contemporary story. Contemporary burlesque is of course often very funny. The Love Witch is also very funny.
Elaine (voice over): I'd like to come back as a cat. I've been so depressed since my cat died. His name was Grey Malkin. He was black and white.
(I don't know why I found that line so funny. But it had me in stitches. Something about the delivery, maybe.)

Elaine was married to Jerry (Stephen Wozniak, shown in flashbacks). She tells us in voiceover that Jerry left her. The flashbacks show him drinking from an occult looking goblet and dying in poisonous agony. We hear his voice later, being an abusive dick to his wife. Elaine leaves San Francisco to come to our Californian college town. She sets up selling stuff to the new age store and aims to find herself a man. And her chosen tool for finding a man is magic.
But each man she falls for is found wanting and winds up dead. After seducing college professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), she finds that her powers and potions have made him fall madly in love with her. He can't cope with the depth of his feelings. He becomes needy, clingy. She loses interest (“What a pussy,” she thinks) and lets him cry out her name in terror all night. And then he just ups and dies, and she buries the body in the back garden, with a witch bottle filled with her wee and a used tampon, and takes off.
Elaine (voiceover): Tampons aren't gross. Women bleed and that's a beautiful thing. Do you know that most men have never even seen a used tampon?
Next she makes her moves on Trish's husband Richard (Robert Seeley), who also cannot cope with his feelings for Elaine. And in turn, when Richard, unable to know how to express his feelings properly, falls for her, Elaine loses interest. So he kills himself.

A detective, Griff (Gian Keys) finds himself on Elaine's trail. They meet. They're sure they met before. They can't think where. Elaine decides it must mean that Griff is her destiny, and throws herself at him, hard.
In fact, Griff used to be a traffic cop, and stopped Elaine in the first couple of minutes of the film to tell her about her faulty tail light on the way there. Neither of them remember it. And so Elaine thinks it's a supernatural sign.

Elaine spends most of the film being wrong about things. She wants a man to take care of, but she doesn't get what it is to be loved. We realise that she was emotionally abused by her father and her husband, and that she idealises people until she doesn't, when she turns on them. Griff she falls in love with. And of course she does, because we learn that Griff is emotionally unavailable and frankly cut from the same cloth as Elane's dad and husband.

Eventually Griff and Elaine will have a confrontation. It's inevitable.
Griff: That's not love, that's a borderline personality disorder!
Elaine calls Griff out for the narcissist he is, in return, but a diagnosis of classic BPD isn't actually that much of a stretch, frankly. Some of the evidence of related mental health problems is circumstantial: chainsmoking, poor diet, poor personal hygiene. There's the way she habitually wears herself like a costume, too – the (retro) detail of Elaine affecting a wig that looks almost exactly like her natural hair allows for a pivotal scene towards the end of the film where Trish, too, gets to try on the Elaine Costume.

Much more telling is the trajectory of Elaine's emotional attachments, her self-destructive behaviour, the way she runs hot and cold and doesn't even realise she's doing so. And the film does it in exactly in the same way that a 50 year old film would signify that she is simply “crazy” and “bad”, except that the film has also signified that it is in fact set in the present.

And the genius of The Love Witch is that it uses a pitch perfect evocation of the tone, dialogue, performances, pacing and visual style of a film made about 50 years ago and an explicit contemporary context to show us with subtlety and grace the experience of someone whose shitty life has saddled them with a raft of mental health problems, trapped in a world where the patriarchal expectations about how you show love damage everyone. Far from being a satire or a spoof, The Love Witch is a work of the most exquisitely delicate balance. And it is the most contemporary thing imaginable, precisely because it looks like the most 1970 thing ever.

Because we are haunted.

Because the past is by no means done with us.