Like Biller’s 2007 Viva, a pointed sexploitation spoof in which she directed herself as a newly “liberated” housewife, The Love Witch is a color-saturated camp pastiche of 1960s and ’70s American Gothic erotica replete with a neurotic heroine who dresses for sex and undresses to kill.
Stirring memories of 1960s glamour queens like Pamela Tiffin, Barbara Parkins, and Gayle Hunnicutt, the preposterously beautiful Samantha Robinson plays the frillily feminine temptress Elaine. Unable to find a virile hunk to love her forever and ever, despite her excellent taste in lingerie, the poor thing has no choice but to off the pathetic or cold-hearted candidates.
No mere confection, Biller’s film harnesses its archaic period aesthetic to probe the nature of Playboy-era gender roles that feminism rendered officially un-respectable, but which survive through social conditioning and biological hardwiring.
At its heart is a playful reconsideration of cinema’s “male gaze” and its collusion with the female “narcissistic gaze.” The “male gaze” is the critic Laura Mulvey’s famous term for the camera’s phallocentric projection of fantasies on women, which reduces them to images for voyeuristic male pleasure. The female “narcissistic gaze,” an idea developed by Simon de Beauvoir, is the practice of women to objectify themselves aggressively to stoke male desire, but also to impress or compete with other women – and, in Elaine’s case, to find a prince.
This may sound reductively academic, but The Love Witch couldn’t be funnier – or less judgmental about male or female shortcomings in dealing with that old black magic. Here’s what Biller had to say about it.
Culture Trip: There’s a tension in The Love Witch between the male gaze and the female gaze. It’s almost as if Elaine co-opts the male gaze to fetishize herself in the same way that Scottie [James Stewart] fetishizes Judy Barton [Kim Novak] to make her look like Madeleine in Vertigo.
Anna Biller: Yes, that’s exactly what she does. Elaine is one step ahead of Scottie in a way. Vertigo has had such a huge influence on my life and I’ve studied it so much, though when I made The Love Witch, the Hitchcock films I was thinking of were Psycho and Marnie.
I was haunted with the conventions of horror and thriller movies and the way the gaze operated, and I tried to transfer that to the female narcissistic gaze. So many women I’ve known have these very intense fantasies about being the most desirable woman in the world, and that’s how they’re gonna get their power. The truth about that has seldom been captured by cinema.
A mask of false eyelashes is almost like a serial killer’s ski mask, and women go out into the world with it because they know they’ve found the chink in men’s armor. Men become just absolute idiots around beautiful women and this is how a woman like Elaine destroys them.
CT: It doesn’t feel as though you’re condoning that, however.
AB: I’m not condoning it because I show Elaine as a pathological narcissistic character, who’s not acting out of intuition but out of the gears of damage and even mind control.
The big issue becomes: is Griff gonna love her or not? A strong male is never gonna fall for a woman like her. If he’s really a man, he’s gonna see through all of her ruses to trap him and he’s gonna win. He can see that coming from a mile off. His manly pride and his moral code is always going to trump her attempts at seduction.
It’s a little like that with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. All successful male heroes in movies choose their moral code over a woman. And because Elaine can’t win Griff’s love, she has to resort to an insane action.
CT: What’s your perspective on Trish [Laura Waddell], Elaine’s friend? She’s not exactly a feminist but she’s self-reliant and she pleases herself. But that doesn’t work because her husband becomes obsessed with Elaine.
AB: The opposite of Elaine is a woman who believes in her ability to be herself and to get by in the world. But that only happens in her fantasy because when a woman like Elaine comes along, Trish loses her husband. What I’m trying to say is that options for women are very limited.
CT: Where are you in this spectrum?
AB: I think I’m dead in the middle between Elaine and Trish.
CT: You use the film’s camp 1960s ambience to emphasize the ideas you’re exploring. The Victorian tea room is a world of idealized femininity, the witch’s coven exists for the seduction of young women, and the medieval fair is a fantasy romance setting.
AB: Yes. The medieval fair actually goes back to Shakespeare’s Green World and plays like As You Like It, in which there’s a wedding at the end. I thought about it structurally because Elaine and Griff’s wedding at the fair doesn’t come at the end. I wanted to show her experiencing absolute rapture when her ultimate fantasy comes true, but it’s actually not real and that creates a classic tragedy.
CT: Samantha Robinson is a revelation as Elaine. Where did you find her?
AB: I found her at the regular casting. It was kind of a miracle.
CT: She knew the film was going to be a satire?
AB: It took her a while to understand what we were doing. We talked a lot and watched a lot of movies, which helped her drop some of the contemporary expectations people have of actresses being either bitchy or self-deprecating. You see that everywhere. It’s hard to get a woman nowadays to actually relax with her own feminine power.
CT: Elaine’s striptease is unusually erotic for a modern film. I suspect some women directors would have reined in Samantha’s glamour and made it clumsier or something.
AB: Yeah, she’s working her sex magic. I didn’t want her just to work it on the characters in the film but on the audience as well. Not just on the male viewers but on the female viewers and their narcissistic self-fantasies. There’s actually no way to keep Samantha from being erotic when she’s doing a dance like that.
CT: It understandably turns Trish’s husband into a slavering fool.
AB: That was the point. It’s not that he’s a jerk or anything. It’s that he’s been put in this impossible situation no straight man would probably ever be able to get out out of – especially if he was under the influence of alcohol. I’m not really placing the blame on him. This is a weakness men have and that they should be able to overcome. But anyone can see it would take a lot for him to leave at that point.
CT: Do you regard the film as a critique of women who pander to male desire?
AB: It is a critique of it – it’s also a celebration of it. The women who like it the most are those who accept and enjoy female performance and display – the done-up and burlesque kind of girls. And they don’t care that it’s a critique of them.
I hate to say this, but a lot of those women aren’t terribly well-educated and intellectual or aware of issues about the male gaze. They just enjoy seeing a character that’s wearing the kind of clothes and makeup they like.
It was a guilty pleasure for me to create Elaine – she’s like Frankenstein’s Monster, but there is something about her that I also emulate. There’s a natural enjoyment women have in gazing narcissistically upon other beautiful women. And this is obviously true of the fashion and beauty industries, which are supported by that female narcissistic gaze, which is very, very strong.
CT: Have you got feminist friends who’ve seen the film?
AB: No. I’m the only feminist I know, really.
CT: What would you hope men would get out of it?
AB: I don’t expect a lot from men. Maybe they will be entertained by it or have an interesting visual experience or something. At the most, maybe they will get a little window into female experience and consciousness, and maybe think about what it’s like to be treated as an object. At one screening, a couple of men came up to me afterwards and one of them said he felt guilty about lusting after some of the women in the film. That was very gratifying.
CT: I didn’t feel guilty, I’m afraid. Have any women objected to the film?
AB: I think the women who relate to it least are women who think that Elaine’s type of femininity is ridiculous. They’ve maybe internalized male hatred of feminine women and they think that by showing Elaine on screen I am catering to male fantasies more than I should be. I plead guilty to that. I am catering to both male and female fantasies, and deliberately so. I’m not the kind of feminist who thinks that the only kind of feminism is the one where you take away male pleasure.
The Love Witch opens in New York on Friday.