Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie The Love Witch. Read at your own peril.
But ‘60s and ‘70s cinema had a special relationship with such practitioners, especially those considered Satanic. In fact, witchery and Satanism became conflated so often in film that they could be read as the same thing. From highbrow horror (Rosemary’s Baby) to exploitation, blood red pentagrams, smoking candles, and scantily-clad bodies took a prominent slice of film’s subject matter and money.
At the same time, society itself had to deal with an ever-changing landscape. The Civil Rights Movement gave birth to feminism where women demanded equal treatment, independence, and freedoms never before thought of in a patriarchal society. One the other end of the spectrum, the Manson Family showed that Hollywood’s horror fictions could become real in shocking fashion. With these and so many other radical changes, so-called “polite society” (a.k.a. rich white people) felt their world slipping away.
But while social movements come and go, swinging forever on a pendulum, those films are fixed, a treasure trove for lovers of supernatural cinema. The camp, the oversaturated colors, and the overheated acting await, ready to feed the need.
Such a movie fan would certainly be excited by The Love Witch, a loving pastiche of those times written, directed, and designed by Anna Biller. This film has the trappings: psychedelic camerawork, audacious costume design, and titillating nudity. But dig into who these characters are and what they represent, this film becomes an interesting tract about relationships, gender roles, and feminism.
As with many stories, this movie begins with a stranger coming to town. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is running from San Francisco to an unnamed small town in central California. Two events spurred her: the death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak) in which Elaine is implicated (and most certainly guilty) and her overbearing coven, run by the couple Gahan (Jared Sanford) and Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum). Barbara, in fact, lends Elaine her unused apartment.
As Elaine moves in, she meets Trish (Laura Waddell), an interior decorator who helped Barbara with the over-the-top design of Elaine’s new home. The two have an introductory lunch at The Victorian Tea Room, a lavish pink and purple “ladies only” restaurant complete with its own harpist. Here we find the grand divide between the two.
Outwardly, Trish looks like the square. Her bell-bottomed pantsuits and flip hairstyle would seemingly put her in the same company as supermom Carol Brady. But when they talk of men and sex, Trish talks like an empowered feminist. She demands her husband treats her like an equal, especially concerned that he respect her. She goes so far as to withhold sex, saying that if she gave it up as much as her husband wanted, she’d be exhausted.
This attitude puts her in the crosshairs of those men who called feminists cold, sexless harpies, but still Trish sees herself as a great partner. She loves her husband and treasures their sex life, but needs something more than a purely physical experience.
Elaine, with her false eyelashes, technicolor make-up, and miniskirts, may look like the bad girl (her wig mirrors the same style Cassandra Peterson used when she designed Elvira), but her attitude lies with the men: give them what they want and they will give you all the love you can handle. She sees her own gratification coming from male wish fulfillment.
This would run in opposition to Rebecca Gordon who, in her essay “Earthstar Magic: A feminist theoretical perspective on the way of the Witch and the path to the Goddess,” defines the witch as a woman who stakes her own ground.
“Goddess worship is a celebration of female power and has attracted many women whom traditional western religion, with its patriarchal codes, has left disempowered, spiritually void, and in many cases, outraged and angry. Women who are witches affirm their own divinity and recognise (sic) the Goddess as being within themselves.”
Although Elaine does have many of these qualities (disempowered, angry, spiritually void), she doesn’t recognize that the answer to her problems lies inward. Biller, furthermore, has defines Elaine’s problem as “pathological narcissism” in the film’s notes.
This plays out in many ways. We see Elaine spending a great deal of time looking in the mirror, painting pictures in which she seems to be the subject, even reading her own Tarot. So when the men of her new town fall short of her expectations, no one should be surprised when Elaine reacts violently.
Male Roles, Male Gaze
Laura Mulvey, in her influential Freudian and feminist analysis of film “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” shows that the male gaze extends to the screen.
“[M]ainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.” The camera becomes a mechanized version of the gaze, framing filmed women as sexual creatures regardless of their role within the story. Because society normalized hetero sex, the same doesn’t apply to men, even if they’re put under the same spotlight.
“The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film,” Mulvey said, “yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of the story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.”
Because Mulvey was writing in the ‘70s, Biller can now play with this concept. While the director makes sure the audience knows Elaine falls under the male gaze (many men turn their heads as she walks the street), the witch has eyes of her own.
But it is her three affairs within this movie which show how her own expectations can’t be fulfilled. Each of these men falls under a masculine stereotype and their encounters with female magic show how limiting male gender roles can be.
Her ex-husband Jerry is an unknown, but we get enough of his character in voice-over and flashback to know he, along with one line from Elaine’s dad, may have been the root of her problems. At the very least, Jerry is controlling, demanding a clean kitchen and house. Her father criticizes her for being fat, while Jerry compliments a weight loss. The weight of this judgement makes Elaine desire male praise.
So, from this skewed perspective, Elaine goes on her quest for love.
The first one to give her affection is Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise). A college English professor who specializes in classic English and French literature, Wayne presents as the “new male” of the ‘70s. Long haired, bearded, and open shirted, we first see him chatting up a school-girlish blonde. But when he falls under Elaine’s vision, he joins the witch, leaving his conversation mid-sentence.
They go to Wayne’s cabin in the woods, his retreat into nature. The flowers and herbs surrounding this rustic home evoke the earth magic practiced by Elaine. As they eat, Elaine asks if Wayne is a “libertine.” With a macho laugh, he agrees.
Elaine has him drink her love potion which contains “psychedelic” herbs. As they both get high, on the potions as well as the sexual atmosphere, they remove to the bedroom. But after a lovemaking session, Elaine finds that her philter has worked too well.
Wayne is overcome by emotions, a neediness for Elaine that he had rejected before their coupling. Screaming into the night as Elaine moves to the couch (in a reversal of the sitcom cliché), Wayne has lessened in her eyes. He’s become, as she says, a “pussy.”
Thus, the first male stereotype is exploded. The man in touch with his feelings and sexuality can’t handle true emotions. He becomes a pleading child then ends as a corpse. Elaine finds him dead in the morning, his heart stopping from so much intensity.
Next, Elaine turns her attention to Trish’s husband Richard (Robert Seely). His main gender role is the stable husband, the bland suburban patriarch who takes care of his family. He’s the opposite of Wayne, looking for committed permanent
But Elaine brings out a hidden desire in Richard. He speaks of wanting to be bad, shucking his boring life and assuming the role of the rebel. Elaine seduces him while Trish is out of town, but this turn by Richard, denying his place in the world, changes the way she sees him.
After one encounter, again filling him with her potion, Elaine discards him. He can’t live up to her expectations as provider, either of a home or of the bottomless love she feels she needs.
Because of the potion, Richard can’t leave Elaine behind. He becomes the spurned lover, writing notes to her to no response and destroying his previously-successful marriage. He takes the final destructive path, slitting his wrists in the bathtub.
Elaine now finds that stability cannot handle her intensity. She needs to find the right combination of steady and independent.
She finds her synthesis in Griff (Gian Keys), a police detective investigating Wayne’s death. Tough and emotionally unavailable, he’s the ur-masculine, the old patriarchy condensed in one body. He’s got Wayne’s nature boy machismo (on their first date, they go horse riding) combined with Richard’s middle class views.
But he’s far from her perfect match. While she sees him as the knight of her future which turned up in a Tarot reading, he sees her as a brief fling. When they stumble on a Renaissance faire run by Gahan and Barbara, the new couple has a mock wedding, complete with hand fasting and ring exchange.
In dueling internal monologues, we hear Elaine ecstatic that she has found the man of her dreams while Griff sees the whole thing as a lark, a game as fake as the costumes they donned to join the play acting. Tellingly, he’s the only one who doesn’t drink her love potion, not coming completely under her feminine sway.
And so when Griff finds that his new love might be guilty of Wayne’s death, he confronts her. This time we see the other side of the male gaze, one of disappointment and anger that we must also imagine on Jerry’s face.
Now, it’s Elaine’s time to be overcome by need. Unable to accept that her love will be unrequited, she stabs Griff to death with a dagger, thus using a phallic symbol to destroy the patriarchal authority.
These are but a few of the themes and symbols running through The Love Witch. But by examining gender roles through these archetypes, Biller shows how complex modern love rituals can be.
Naomi Goldenberg, who helped such modern witches as Starhawk gain academic credibility, wrote, “The word witch can conjure female carnality, deep emotion, imaginings that border on madness, the playfulness and vulnerability of infancy and old age, the perpetual birth and decay of the natural world. Witches thus are well-positioned to make institutions nervous by calling attention to that which a dominant patriarchal order must occlude.”
Elaine declared herself the love witch but didn’t have the depth to carry off either term. She used her outer beauty to influence her sex life, but she only indulged that one side of herself. As many politicians say these days, no magic wand exists to wave around and create perfection. It is a muddy, bloody mess that takes interior work for maximum exterior attraction.