Anna Biller is a filmmaker in possession of a totally singular, Technicolor-channelling vision. Both of the two features to her name are small-town-set odysseys of female fantasy: The Love Witch (2016), her second feature following Viva (2007), centres on comely occultist Elaine Parks (played by Samantha Robinson), herself a woman in possession of some rather singular charms.
In the brutal aftermath of a divorce, Elaine has found solace in the practice of witchcraft, while her ex, Jerry, has wound up dead – correlation, in this case, most certainly implying causation. The viewer is introduced to Elaine as she’s cruising along the Californian coast in a lipstick-red Mustang, en route to a sleepy town up north where she plans to begin a new life. And what is life without love? With her accommodation already arranged – an apartment in a Victorian manse plushily decked out with occult art and accoutrements, courtesy of her old burlesque pal and witching mentor Barbara – Elaine is free to devote herself to finding a worthy match.
Attracting suitors proves a cinch. Elaine is always flawlessly made-up and dressed to the nines – she favours punchy colours and girly, seventies-style ensembles (like most of the costumes in the film, these were painstakingly handmade by Ms. Biller herself), replete with matching accessories. What’s more, she’s unafraid of making the first move: when a rugged professor she’s just met concedes that he sometimes takes girls to his woodland hideaway, she coolly inquires, “Would you like to take a girl up there right now?” It's not sex that Elaine wants, however – it’s love, full-blown, storybook-style love; someone who’ll be the prince to her Gunne Sax princess.
Having been cruelly ditched by her darling Jerry, the born-again witch has learned to leave nothing to chance: in addition to stoking her lover's lust with the spectacle of striptease (after wooing them with her home cooking), she doses them with love potion and psychedelics. It’s a thoroughly intoxicating combination. As Elaine stands before the playboy professor in his cabin and provocatively unbelts her trench, his vision and ours is addled by coloured lights, winking and pinwheeling in the frame. The black coat is opened to reveal a garish rainbow lining. “What the hell?” the man utters woozily, wincing in awe. “It’s so bright.” It is through the arts of both dressing and undressing, as augmented by magic, that Elaine strives to enchant; to embody, as she crows to another such mark while in the throes of passion, “your ultimate fantasy!”
Elaine is a paragon of glamour, in both the contemporary sense of the word – being a cosmopolitan, decadent kind of sex appeal – and its original sense, associated specifically with witchcraft: the Scottish word “glamour”, dating back to the 18th century, connotes a delusive spell, and was ported over into literary English by Sir Walter Scott early in the 1800s. It would be another century or so before the term was repurposed for a secular, commercial realm, when it was seized upon by Hollywood in the 1930s, at the dawn of what would be its golden age. Not historically a gendered term, “glamour” at this point veered feminine, as a label used to burnish the growing constellation of female stars. (Glamour, the women’s magazine, was launched in 1939, under the name Glamour of Hollywood.) Insofar as Hollywood was understood as purveyor of ‘movie magic’; insofar as its leading ladies –Dietrich, Hayworth, Monroe – draped in silks and furs, could render their onscreen paramours and punters alike slack-jawed with desire, the idea of “glamour” retained a kernel of that old Scottish sorcery.
Scott’s first invocation of the word came in “The Lay of the Last Minstrel”, a medieval romance in poem form, published in 1805. The narrative is in part concerned with the retrieval of a magical book: “And one short spell therein he read,” relates the minstrel-narrator,
It had much of glamour might;
Could make a ladye seem a knight;
The cobwebs on a dungeon wall
Seem tapestry in lordly hall;
A nut-shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling seem a palace large,
And youth seem age, and age seem youth:
All was delusion, nought was truth.
Glamour has always been a companion of artifice: the spell described by the minstrel has only the power to alter appearance, not substance. So too cosmetics (which owe their popularisation in the ‘20s to the influence of screen sirens like Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford); so too the camera, with its Vaseline-slicked lens, positioned just so, in partnership with carefully calibrated lighting. Movie magic is not organic but manufactured (the specialty of the ‘dream factory’), and glamour is something like a special effect; immaterial, it beguiles through the eye of the beholder.
In The Love Witch, however, Biller demonstrates that the artificiality – the contrivance – of glamour is not inimical to substance, in either sense of the word. When Elaine and one of her dates stumble upon a renaissance fair, they become the inspiration for an impromptu mock wedding, and are serenaded by a couple of the participants: “We’re pretending to be in love today, but pretending is also real,” the woman sings, giving melodic, lightly comic expression to one of the film’s key ideas.
It’s an idea that holds the potential for danger as much as delight. “Ohh, Elaine! I have never felt real love like this before,” confesses the professor, in post-coital mode. Moments later, he lets out a sob. “Elaine! I’m scared. I’m not used to feeling things so strongly.” (While he continues to wail, Elaine duly removes herself to the living room. “What a pussy,” snipes her voiceover.) He’s dead by morning. Another beau pines so intensely for her that he’s driven to slit his wrists, death being preferable to the torture of Elaine’s inattentiveness. Perhaps she ought to have been more conservative in her love potion dosages, or perhaps these men were simply ill-equipped to deal with the emotions she inspired in them – this is her defence against the charge of murder, anyway. (“Witchcraft is just a way of concentrating energy,” she insists. “It can only work with what’s already there.”) Either way, it seems that looks really can kill.
“I’m trying to dignify female glamour,” Biller has said. “Female glamour is a real thing, it’s really important for a lot of women. … It’s a kind of drag for them, they’re creating an identity and its performance.” Elaine – a grim reaper in the guise of the “ultimate [male] fantasy” – is a product of a society that both fetishises and vilifies glamour, wrongly conceived of as a quality that only has value in relation to the male gaze, and which therefore gets written off as regressive. With its gorgeous array of retro, colour-coordinated interiors, styled and shot in the manner of a classical-era confection and complemented by pitch-perfect mannerist performances, The Love Witch, much like its protagonist, provides an object lesson in the capacity for depth, darkness, and expression contained in bewitching surfaces.