I saw filmmaker Anna Biller's movie The Love Witch during an ice storm — but inside the theater, I was transported to the trippy, rainbow-prism world of Elaine, a spell-bindingly seductive witch with an abusive past. She uses potions and "sex magick" to attract men, but when she gets lust and obsession instead of the true love she craves, the results are lethal.
Biller is fetishistic about aesthetic. She shot both her 2007 cult film Viva (an exploration of the sexual revolution's dark side, in which Biller also starred) and The Love Witch on 35-mm. film, using antique three-point lighting techniques that re-create the Technicolor look of classic cinema. She has ten credits in total on The Love Witch, including writer, director, producer, editor, and art director. She painted the art on Elaine's walls, hand-hooked a pentagram rug, and spent every night after dinner learning calligraphy to make an authentic-looking spell book. She also attended pagan rituals for witchcraft research, sewed an entire cast's worth of Renaissance outfits for a solstice faire scene, wrote original songs, and constructed elaborate color-coordinated sets in the palette of the Thoth tarot-card deck.
The Love Witch has the kind of New Age soundtrack I'd want to listen to while bottling a potion made out of a used tampon, riding a white horse, or strip-teasing for my interior decorator's husband (all things that Elaine does, while dressed up in an enviable wardrobe of psychedelic '60s/'70s outfits, a nipple-length black wig, and matching cat-eye makeup). I was so under the film's vintage spell that I started to imagine that the issues of misogyny it deals with were from a bygone era, but contemporary objects like cell phones and modern cars serve as jarring reminders that Biller's feminist subtext is deceptively current. I talked to Biller about witchcraft, objectification, and representing the female world onscreen.
Ellen Freeman: I've noticed a growing interest in the occult happening in parallel to this surge of girl power. Do you see witchcraft as a means of female empowerment?
AB: I do. The way religions are used is dependent on the concerns of the era; in the '60s, I think a lot of witchcraft was about people exploring nudity, sexuality, the demonic, the beyond … for exploitation of drugs, and for getting outside of Christianity. I think today, all of witchcraft is very aligned with New Age concepts about inner healing, meditating. People are getting into it for completely different reasons, like female empowerment, women finding their power as goddesses. Elaine says, "Witchcraft saved my life," so that's how she feels. One thing I noticed in the rituals I went to is that some of the people seemed very enlightened, but other people seemed really lost and debased. They were trying to find themselves.
EF: That's how Elaine's character comes to it, too.
AB: She's desperate. In this movie, witchcraft is not entirely positive, because it hasn't really given her back her life back at all. She's using it in the wrong way.
EF: Her body is the actual altar in the rituals, so she becomes this object of worship. That happens in your film Viva, too; the heroine is "set free" from her boring suburban marriage by the swinging sexual revolution and ultimately becomes a sexual object of worship for men. But that doesn't lead to either of those characters' happiness.
AB: That's right. It has to do with the desire gap, whose desire is being privileged. [Elaine and Viva] have a sexual fantasy of being worshipped as goddesses, but when it actually happens, it's not the same as their self-worship. It doesn't contain any human respect. There's no real love there. Objectification precludes love, right? When you're an object, you don't have a consciousness. When you love yourself, you have a consciousness attached to that, and it's an actual sense of preserving yourself. That's not the same as somebody taking away that consciousness and just worshipping a body. That's actually demonic.