This has been a year of studio era homages in cinema, with Hail, Caesar! and this week's Rules Don't Apply the more prominent ones. But those two pay tribute to a bygone era in surface presentation or via random references. If you want a film that lives, eats and breathes the dazzling, soap-bubble world of a time gone by then you can't do any better than The Love Witch. Too niche for its own good at times, The Love Witch is a jaw-droppingly meticulous recreation of the Russ Meyer and studio melodramas of the 1960s (a combination of Peyton Place and Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!) with director/producer/editor/costume and set designer Anna Biller bedazzling every frame with beauty and love.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) has recently relocated from San Francisco after losing her husband, Jerry. But what no one knows is Elaine is a witch - and not just any witch, a witch who uses sex and love to make men go mad. Unfortunately Elaine is a bit too good at making men fall in love. When the bodies of men start piling up, Elaine will have to work her spells on the detective (Gian Keys) trying to stop her.
As someone who ate up Hail, Caesar upon release and absolutely adores works like L.A. Confidential, I was blown away by The Love Witch. It's one thing to set a film in a particular time period or even stick to utilizing film techniques of that era. But what Biller does is inhabit every facet of the period she's focused on. There's never any reference made to this being set in a previous decade, and modern cars and a cell phone act as anachronistic reminders that Biller's going for timelessness.
There's no need to cement a decade because the themes she's working with are universal: the issues regarding love and sex, how women are continually confused on how to make men happy, and how women need control in their lives. Interestingly, the characters discuss the distinctions between men and women, seeking parity in embracing their differences but still treating each gender with respect.
Unlike most productions The Love Witch never suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen. Biller is the master chef of this film, doing everything short of acting in it herself. Her costume and set design is nothing short of awards worthy. From Elaine's funky, Psycho-esque house to the psychdelic witch hovel inside, every set is worth living in. And by that same token, the clothes are breathaking. Biller herself designed the outfits and Samantha Robinson makes every outfit, from a 1960s mod dress to a gaudy Victorian tea hat shimmer. Coupled with the rich color design, The Love Witch is the year's best-looking film!
To borrow from The Sweet Smell of Success, Samantha Robinson's Elaine is a "cookie full of arsenic." Enchanting and ethereal, her blue-shadowed eyes are inserted throughout the film, haunting and taunting the men she loves. Reminiscent of Christina Hendricks, Robinson takes the character of Elaine and removes any sense of menace from her character. She's beguiling in how devout to love she is.
Her actions don't come from an unfeeling place, though she has no compunction in hurting her lone friend Trish (Laura Waddell); they come from a place where the need to feel is all that matters. Believing "men are like children," Elaine is confused at how her spells work too well. The men she meets overdose on love and emotion because it's something they're not used to feeling. (The world of unfeeling men and gender swaps is pure Russ Meyer!) Waddell is also fun as the somewhat square Englishwoman who befriends Elaine. Her normality makes her the voice of reason and turn the audience on edge towards Elaine's actions. Keys is also fun in the John Gavin-esque role of Griff, a monotone detective who thinks he's James Bond.
Because The Love Witch is so steeped in nostalgia those who aren't familiar with the films its homaging will be completely at sea. The film also seems to have borrowed the flaws of films from that time period. At two hours, the entire affair suffers from some fat in the middle as well some overly complicated narrative leaps. A digression to a Ren Fair has a tenuous reason for existing in the film, but it's doubtful audiences will realize the significance. Furthermore, the third act payoff is wonderful, even if the first two acts are a bit slow in setting up the eventual demise of certain characters.
The Love Witch is the perfect film for classic film fans of a certain pedigree. Samantha Robinson is a bright new star, and Anna Biller is a director to watch out for!
The Love Witch is currently playing in Los Angeles, opens in New York on November 18, followed by a national release.