The Love Witch is an auteur film in a sense that the New Wave could only dream of: for her second feature film, Anna Biller acted as director, writer, costume designer, set designer, and composer. She brought unparalleled attention to detail to each department, allowing the movie to take seven and a half years to complete. She shot entirely on film and designed sets with vintage and custom-made furniture. (She even took six months to make a Persian wool pentagram rug.) Given that Biller announced her next film, Bluebeard’s Castle, through a blog post in 2017 with so far no announcement of filming even being underway, her next release may still be a long way off. While we’re waiting, let’s take the chance to look back at the plush female gaze of The Love Witch.
Dancing Between Camp and Classicism
The opening shot establishes the film’s studied expertise as our protagonist, Elaine, drives a red convertible Ford Mustang down an oceanside highway. Her hair whips in the wind as she takes long drags from a cigarette. “I’m starting a new life,” she tells the viewers in voiceover. “I had a nervous breakdown after he left me.” We cut to her ex-husband drinking poison from a goblet. “I devoured everything I could about how to get your man back. According to the experts, men are very fragile.” With her bright blue eyeshadow, long black hair, angular cheekbones, and broken heart, Elaine looks right out of a Lana Del Rey album.
It’s worth noting that, while set in the present day, The Love Witch is highly stylized to give it a vintage look. The costume design and characters are written to evoke the sexploitation of women in Hammer horror films, while the score is either pulled from 1960s Italian soundtracks or written by Biller herself. As set designer, Biller based Elaine’s apartment on colors from the Thoth tarot deck. She has a sun room and two moon rooms, as well as herbs, candles, candelabras, throw pillows, and Victorian furniture. It’s entirely overdone to reflect not just Elaine’s witchiness, but also her princess fantasies (we’ll get to those soon).
In order to conjure the old Hollywood movies that inspired The Love Witch, Biller shot entirely on film. Using a near-obsolete process brought an onslaught of problems, as certain processes had to be done digitally because supplies weren’t available. Most of the film cement in Los Angeles had expired. Almost every negative cutter had retired or moved into more in-demand work. And because film requires more light than digital, giant lights crammed the sets and melted the actresses’ makeup. It was one mishap after another, and Biller details the painstaking process of shooting film on her blog. Yet this process is what marks The Love Witch as unique from other films being made today. The attention to detail allowed Biller to create her unique take on the female gaze, and in the case of The Love Witch, that gaze draws from camp and classicism.
Elaine’s Plush Wardrobe
Over the course of the film, we watch Elaine recover from heartbreak and try to find love again, only to seduce and kill three more men. The love spells she casts, it seems, are just too strong for the male heart to handle. For Biller, The Love Witch was an exploration of what happens when men are forced to open the gate of their emotions: “that’s what kills all the men in my movie—having to experience their own feelings,” Biller says.
The plot is inspired by self-help books Biller read after a breakup, which claimed that a woman’s love could actually kill a man. Elaine satirizes the “crazy woman” these books are meant to target. After all, she murders a man who says no one would ever love her enough, then fantasizes about his proposal. As she tells her friend Trish, “we may be grown women, but underneath we’re just little girls dreaming of being carried off by a prince on a white horse.” Elaine’s desire for love may turn her sociopathic, but in her mind, these deaths are simple casualties of her princess fantasy.
She’s basically a satanic sex bomb. Her character embodies the witch depicted in The Hammer of Witches, a fifteenth-century witch-hunting manual that set the standard for who witches were and how to hunt them. It was even used as a reference during witch trials in Europe. Its most-quoted line is, “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is, in women, insatiable.” Given Elaine’s proclivity for murdering the men she sleeps with, she fits the bill; in fact, she fits it so perfectly, The Love Witch verges on satire of these Early Renaissance fears.
But Elaine relishes the power and freedom her witchy femininity gives her. Sometimes, she’ll stare at men while her voiceover tells us of instances of past abuse and coercion. Witchcraft, then, becomes a way for Elaine to cultivate mystery and allure, and to wield a power unbeknownst to men. She leaves a trail of dead lovers in her wake, donning heavy makeup, lace, spangles, and talismanic symbols.
Her aesthetic subverts many of the things we’re taught attractive women are supposed to be, including passive, agreeable, and open to scrutiny. Our female lead challenges the social contract of how women should dress today, rendering her self-modulating and self-protected. And since the film’s aesthetics mirror Elaine’s wardrobe, The Love Witch gives the sense that we’re in Elaine’s world. She has power here—where rich colors, Victorian style, and princess fantasies pervade. It’s female glamour-meets-witchcraft.
The Tampon Scene
The campy, by-and-for-women aesthetics of The Love Witch are epitomized by the movie’s treatment of menstruation. After Elaine’s latest lover dies at the hands of her spellwork, she makes a witch bottle for his grave. She fills the container with her urine and bloody tampon. This way, a part of her will “always be with him” (sure, she killed him, but she still loves him). With the bottle full, she breaks the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera and saying, “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?” Then she continues mixing her bottle, never to address us again.
The inclusion of menstrual blood acts as a bit of real-life witchcraft. By actually filming a used tampon, Biller transforms a shameful feminine secret into a visible and powerful cultural symbol. This encapsulates a key theme of the movie: that women’s so-called weaknesses are, in fact, a source of their unique power, witches or not. Whether it’s princess fantasies or an interest in witchcraft, these tendencies allow woman to create her own world.
Compare this to the ancient belief that menstruating women were possessors of dark magic. The Roman naturalist and writer Pliny the Elder wrote a thirty-seven-volume book at the end of the first century titled Natural History. It has one deliciously pseudo-scientific paragraph on menstruation:
“They say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the very flashes of lightning; that stormy weather too is thus kept away, and that at sea exposure, even without menstruation, prevents storms. Wild indeed are the stories told of the mysterious and awful power of the menstruous discharge itself, the manifold magic of which I have spoken of in the proper place. Of these tales I may without shame mention the following: if this female power should issue when the moon or sun is in eclipse, it will cause irremediable harm; no less harm if there is no moon; at such seasons sexual intercourse brings disease and death.”
First-century science, people. You can’t make it up.
Of course, modern depictions of witchcraft still revolve around menstrual blood. Take Stephen Kings’s Carrie, for example, where a teenage girl’s telekinetic powers awaken shortly after her first period. Her mom claims the Devil gave her both these gifts, though Carrie denies this. But Carrie murders her classmates when they pour pig’s blood on her, affirming the link between bodily fluids and demonic witchcraft. If The Love Witch turns the menstruation myth on its head, it does so with full awareness of the history from which it comes.
Between the used tampon, heavy makeup, pinks and yellows, lace, unicorns, crowns, big hair, and spellwork, The Love Witch shamelessly asserts the female gaze. Taken all together, Biller gave us something else right out of female fantasy: female voyeurism at its finest. The Love Witch takes the age-old adage that the female sex drive is a satanic force, and tells us that’s nothing to fear—as long as you’re the witch.