The ’70s are Alive in ‘The Love Witch’

And so is Anna Biller’s command of pop and culture.
Oscilloscope Laboratories
By  · Published on December 15th, 2016

It’s tempting to call The Love Witch a small movie: it is both very stylish and very independently made (its writer/director/towering art goddess, Anna Biller, kept costs down by designing much of its elaborate set by hand). It takes place in a very small town, contains one protagonist, and besides the occasional flashback, stays put. Yet the experience of walking out of the small and hip cinema where I watched it was one of descending from a high tower or putting down a great American novel after a long read.

Much of the attention that Biller’s breakthrough movie has received has been attached to its visual accomplishment. A.O. Scott applauded Biller’s aesthetic command of “gauzy romance, surreal grotesquerie, and demented trippiness,” and Samantha Robinson, who plays Biller’s titular witch of love, currently graces the cover of HD Video Pro, a camera trade magazine. A person recommending the movie told me that there were times that she had to look around and confirm that she was not, indeed, at the screening of some long-lost piece of ’70s camp, that this was indeed coming out in 2016.

The confusion is not out of place. Biller’s debut, Viva, was invariably described as a vicious and biting complement to the humor of That ’70s Show or “an intricately detailed homage” to the couple-swapping pornographies made by Radley Metzger or Herschell Gordon Lewis in that era. Biller stars as a suburban housewife named Barbi who is left by her ski-loving husband and, so, she takes part in “the sexual revolution.” Along with a neighbor, Sheila (Bridget Brno), they are contracted by a madam who runs a bordello that thinly masquerades as a “singles agency.”

The rest of the movie plays like a satirical morality tale: Sheila tells the madam she wants “to meet a rich man who will buy me a fur coat and diamonds” and is paired with an impotent millionaire while Barbi, who “wants to meet someone kind and sweet and sensitive and loving,” is paired with pop artists and folk musicians who rape her. In the movie’s climax she is taken to an orgy and drugged in order to perform, in a vaguely Aztec glam outfit, as the decade’s sex goddess.

The polemical is avoided by wrapping Viva up in a catalog of that decade’s camp. Bowie is there (Barbi adopts the alter-ego “Viva” for her ‘liberated woman’ persona), as is the nostalgic schmaltz of Chicago: the movie ends with Barbi and Sheila decked out in glittering sequin dresses and dancing to a sanitized parody of their own experience. The misogynistic system it depicts is written into its atmosphere and its stink pervades through the racks of any hip vintage store. Biller writes as much, through a monologue that Sheila’s husband, played by Jared Sanford, turns to the camera to deliver:

“There has never been a better time to be a man. The willing women, the dandy clothes, the frills, the big rings and jewelry, the open shirts, the sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savor this time. For it soon will be gone. Never to return.”


Of course, this set-up of revealing Western culture’s sexual revolution as something underpinned by non-consensual sex still makes headlines. Biller, however, has moved on. The Love Witch, while even more professionally artifactual, sits less firmly still. Nowhere does a character assure us that “the time is 1972,” as the opening narration does in Viva. Robinson’s character, Elaine, takes tea with her neighbor Trish (Laura Waddell) in a Victorian tea-house that’s pure Mad Hatter if Carroll were playing it straight.

Later, in a segment of the movie that has been criticized as jarring, Elaine spends a significant amount of time at a Renaissance Fair that she discovers in the woods. At a later point, a character can be seen using a cell phone. The Love Witch insists on an emotional chronology that is, by its definition, timeless: “[Little girls] grow up with fairy tales, the fantasy of the prince on the white horse,” Biller says in an interview with Filmmaker, “and then they become teenagers and the reality is that men are constantly trying to rape them.”

Samantha Robinson and Laura Waddell’s characters meet for tea sometime in the late 18th century.

Somewhere between all the vintage cars and bellbottoms, Elaine becomes a very contemporary figure. The ostensibly outdated speech she gives Trish, and the viewer, on the importance of submission in the gender war, is not, on second thought, so far away from the lips of Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele. This could be and has been taken as a sort of joke. The ironic register that Robinson maintains for an entire two hours, conversely, gives her performance a beguiling sincerity.

In refusing to give the audience so much as a self-aware nod, Robinson’s performance is not the ceaselessly winking snark that H. Jon Benjamin and Aisha Tyler make campy use of on Adam Reed’s very popular animated nostalgia party Archer. Nor does it possess the firm and sometimes tender conviction in its metaphors that occupy nearly every Jeff Nichols movie. A figure that Robinson’s Elaine is, perhaps, most similar to is something like Lana Del Rey: a straight-faced siren who literally stares at her potential listener on the covers of her first three albums.

Like Elaine, Del Rey made an intense effort to appear out of nowhere back in late 2011 when “Video Games,” a song literally about watching a guy ignore her, emerged out of a very particularized nowhere. And in her best songs, Del Rey performs as the younger lover to a mysterious older man and anticipates the kind of nostalgia that Anna Biller’s career openly takes part in when she sings lines like “They think I don’t understand/The freedom land of the seventies.” Her voice, like Robinson’s, is breathy and recalls the fake pout of a pornographic actress, except her pouting is for very real reasons.

Biller and Del Rey both represent a new dialogue between American pop culture and post-war suburbia. For some time, suburbia existed in movies as a stand-in for certain past decades of American social life; the 50s and 70s popularly stand out. A vague memory exists of them as emblematic of something uncool and, for some time, Hollywood was very successful at marketing a snarky image of suburbia that was entirely meaningless and, thus, had vast appeal.

This climaxed sometime around the turn of the millennium: American Beauty swept the Oscars for some reason but, really, everything from Daria to Donnie Darko aspired to be fighting the man behind his picket fence. In Viva, Biller finder herself still working in the iconography of that style and suffers from their limitations.

But in The Love Witch, suburbia turns to become a site of pure mythology, a place where nothing is really ordinary. A lot is owed, true, to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but that’s a debt, mostly, of establishing the audiences that will flock out to Brooklyn in order to watch it in a movie theatre that also serves cocktails. Entertainment like Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers and the Duffers’ more literally titled pop-hit Stranger Things operate similarly but it is Biller’s interest in sexuality’s equally liminal boundaries that elevates it into something else entirely.

In Biller’s first movie, Viva, suburban fetishization feels exhausted of the insights it can provide.

In The Love Witch’s best set-piece, Elaine seduces Wayne, an older college professor played by soap-opera star Jeffrey Vincent Parise. A lot of critics like to focus on the witch half of the movie’s title and frame Elaine as an homage to the mixer-of-potions who lures men to their death like the siren and her song. But it really isn’t hard to lure a man to his death, with or without magic. Her technique is nothing more than the methodology she expounds on throughout the movie: giving men what they want.

It kills him not because she is evil but because, as Slavoj Žižek says somewhere, sexual fantasy requires things to stay fantastical and, in turn, demands an active war of the sexes in the heterosexual bedroom. Even in the most popular straight male sexual fantasy of today, humiliation of some sort, as contemporary pornography seems to tell us, doesn’t really work if that is what she wants. This Sisyphean irreconcilability is what Biller’s movie discovers from its exploration of suburbia, that happiness is ultimately impossible inside square life.

Another figure that it was impossible for me not to see in Robinson’s deadpan was Tura Satana’s Varla in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. It’s a tacky choice: there are probably millions of far more erudite sexploitation movies out there. But Faster, Pussycat!… interests me. Varla smartly owns her own sexual prowess ‐ men refer to her as “more stallion than mare” and a “beautiful animal” but, like Elaine, she manages to kill them before our sensibilities feel too insulted.

It made me also think about Tarantino, another nostalgist, whose oeuvre suggests an interest in many of the same movies as Biller ‐ Tarantino made a sort of direct homage to Faster, Pussycat!… in his 2007 movie Death Proof. To criticize what is very much his least popular movie would be cheeky, but watching it next to either The Love Witch or Faster Pussycat!… frames just how sexless that kind of artifactual creation is. The morality that hangs over them ‐- be it Kurt Russell’s vague lust for mechanical crushing or even Mia Wallace’s maintained fidelity to Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction ‐- fixes their existence to the various moments in the cultural wars that they were made and away from the artifacts themselves.

But Biller’s connection to that era is more than an aesthetic nod: she repurposes a somewhat lost era in order to redraw the social battles of today. They come out in full color.

movies are not magic but skin and bone.