What Happens When You Examine Sex and Violence Through the Female Gaze

We spoke to the creator of "Viva" and "The Love Witch" about subverting classic film tropes, and asked viewers what it means to them.

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Jul 14 2017, 6:12pm

All photos courtesy of Anna Biller

Anna Biller's films, which Sausage Party actor James Franco called "feminist B-movies," were the perfect choice for a special double feature in conjunction with NSFW: Female Gaze, a showcase of work by more than 20 female artists across mediums put on by VICE's Creators and the Museum of Sex.

On Thursday evening, Anthology Film Archives showed Biller's new feature film, The Love Witch and her 2007 premiere Viva, both of which delightfully embrace and embody the idea of the female gaze, each by subverting a common film trope. Viva—in which Biller starred in addition to writing, producing, directing, and editing the film, plus creating most of the costumes and sets—is Biller's feminist counter to the classic sexploitation films of the 60s and 70s, full of references to Playboy. Biller plays a bored housewife named Barbi, who gets swept up in the world of free love. But rather than a purely liberating, campy romp, Barbi gets more than she bargains for, as Biller explores the ways the sexual revolution was not always positive for women, who were taken advantage of and objectified as much in the 70s as in any other decade.

In The Love Witch, released in May, Biller toys with the idea of the femme fatale by showing the archetype's dangerous sexuality through her own eyes. While Biller stayed behind the camera for this one, she still donned just about every non-acting hat she could to create this film over a seven-year period, not only designing but actually building and stitching many of the sets and costumes, as well as pulling the strings as writer, director, and producer. In The Love Witch, a young witch named Elaine brews potions and spells to find love, but her magic is too strong. Overwhelmed by their love for her, men die in droves. "Men are known for being much less emotional than women, but, in my experience, they're much more emotional," Biller told the Guardian. "And that's why they won't, or can't, open that gate—it would destroy them. And that's what kills all the men in my movie—having to experience their own feelings."

Broadly spoke to Biller, as well as fans who attended the double feature, about the female gaze in film, what makes a cult classic, and how it feels to hear audiences laugh at rape scenes.

Anna Biller in "Viva"

Broadly: Your films have been called "women's cult classics" and "feminist B-movies." What do you think of those labels?
Biller: I don't think of cinema in those terms. A cult movie is made by the audience, not by the director—it's audience reception theory. It's the same with B-movies—they originally referred to a film's budget, not to the type of film it was. We look back at low budget movies from an earlier era and laugh at them because of the clunkiness that comes from having less money, but that's not something I try to capture at all. I'm trying to make "good" cinema, but I have less money, and I have an aesthetic that embraces color and formalism the way movies did in the past. B-movies were often exploitation movies, and I'm not doing exploitation, whereas many other directors today are doing that. When I think of exploitation, I think of straight-to-video softcore and horror films churned out quickly and cheaply for established internet distribution channels. I think of my movies more as art movies, or even just as "regular movies." I am a feminist, but that's not a cinema term either—it's a political point of view that can get into the fabric of a movie. One thing I do relate to is women's cinema from the 30s and 40s—movies like Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven, Baby Face, all of those Hollywood melodramas. I'd like to bring back the classic women's picture.

In each of these films, you flip a classic trope on its head by showing it through a woman's gaze, can you talk a little about the mechanics of that? How did the stories (of the sexual revolution, or of a femme fatale) change when you center the woman?
In Viva, the idea was to take the sexual revolution as portrayed in Playboy magazines from the early 70s, and make a story out of them where the woman is not invisible and erased. I literally tore out ads and cartoons from Playboy magazines to create the script. There were all of these clichéd male fantasies—the nude female neighbor walking into the bachelor pad, the sexy young call girls with their Madame in Victorian-inspired negligees and hairdos, the lecherous boss, orgies, nudist hippies, swinging couples, threesomes, artists, and every sex joke imaginable—and I put a female protagonist in the center of it all as a witness, so that we can think about what that time was, who it was for, what it looked and felt like.

In The Love Witch, I turned the typical male serial killer into a female, and had her kill not the way men kill, but the way women kill—with love, with forcing men out of their safe walled-off spaces. And I tried as much as possible to make her world full of her own fantasy imagery, which is overly pretty but creepy and insane, because it's full of her toxic self-love. I got the idea of making a woman kill with love from self-help books I was reading, where men would strongly counsel women to "not love him too much." This one book in particular was explaining to women that when they give too much of something, even if that something is a good thing like love, they can inadvertently overwhelm and suffocate others, and that it makes their man sick and makes him flee. I thought, what a great idea for a horror movie! I had already been sketching out a script for a movie about a femme fatale witch, but that's what brought the story together. I wanted women to have a fun female villain to identify with, and I also wanted for men to see a movie where romantically or sexually disappointing men are killed, reversing gender tropes in typical slasher films. Both films were partly experiments to see how I could create an audience divided by gender.

Read more: The Woman Behind 'The Love Witch' on Creating a Film for Female Pleasure

There have been lots of interpretations of Viva as a continuation of sexploitation films, but I know you reject that connection. Can you tell us how you see Viva as related to those films, if at all? What are people missing when they call it sexploitation?
Viva is about the sexual revolution in the 1970s, as seen through Playboy magazine. So of course it's going to remind people of the contemporaneous movies that were suffused with that Playboy magazine energy and aesthetic that was everywhere and that was mainstream at the time. The most obvious difference is that those movies were made by people commenting on the lifestyles of their own time, celebrating a new kind of sexual freedom and a new kind of openness about male fantasy. Those movies were part of the sexual revolution, creating products to support and enhance the sexual revolution, whereas I'm looking back on the past to comment on it. I'm dusting off relics of the past, of a time when sexual expression was big, loud, and grotesque, and I'm staring at the grinning people in those cigarette and liquor ads and making a fantasy and a commentary about them from the present time, as a woman. I'm treating the sexual revolution as an art project, not as a celebration of men's ability to get laid, or as a contribution to their porn collections.

You know, I come from the art world, and when we did art critiques everything was important. Often in critiques, we'd look more at the frame than at the art itself. "What does that gilded ornate thrift store frame mean when paired with this minimal black and white nude photograph?" We would pore over stuff like that for hours, because context is everything when deciphering meaning. So looked at in that light it's absurd and nonsensical to call Viva sexploitation. Just look at the frame. I think I myself may have started some of the confusion, because my early marketing materials for Viva referred to the film as sexploitation. It was a marketing gimmick that I was sure would be read as ironic and actually highlight the difference between my film and sexploitation, but people are very literal-minded so the irony went over their heads.

The Love Witch complicates the idea of a femme fatale. What did you want to add to the evolution of that classic archetype?
The femme fatale is already a very complicated archetype, and has been done many times and with great depth and skill, so I don't think I've added anything to it. But I am trying to bring the femme fatale back as a positive sort of figure for women to relate to, since she's been out of mainstream movies at least for a long time.

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in "The Love Witch."

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Rebecca Goyette, an artist whose ceramic work is also in the NSFW: Female Gaze showcase: You know, it's meaning a lot to me right now because I'm really moved by being in this show. I've been making work for years that is about sexuality and can be considered feminist, but I always thought about my work as being sexual first, and I could be put in with this idea of feminism, but what I'm really trying to talk about is human sexuality from my perspective and me being the director of that perspective—me being able to choose what I find titillating, what I find enjoyable. And so for me, the female gaze is not about being an object for a male, it's more about dissecting myself and finding out what I find pleasurable and showing that to other people, and being unafraid to share my sexual inclinations with other people through the work. And so I love what [Biller] does for that same reason.

How do you define a cult classic, and do you think these films are/could become cult classics?
These are definitely cult classics. And it's so thrilling to see cult classics made from a female perspective and if you saw them and you didn't know anything about them, you would know that they're made by a woman. It's so pleasurable, every detail was attended to, every color every texture, every little object in that film she decided upon, she got it at a thrift store or she made it herself and it's so felt in the work. It's so luscious and beautiful and sexual, and it just feels so good. And there are feminist messages in there.

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in "The Love Witch."

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Emily Gallagher, 23, artist's studio assistant:
For me a big part of the female gaze is that it's not the opposite of the male gaze. It's not women doing the same thing that men are doing to us. It's a different set of things going on. To me the male gaze means that women are fetishized sexually, and I don't think the female gaze fetishizes men, I think it seeks different things.

There was a lot of laughter in the theater, do you think it was comedic laughter or uncomfortable laughter?
I also found it really hard to watch. Like it's making fun of a lot of stuff, but just some of the things that were happening made my skin crawl.

From "Viva"

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Renee Rossi, 18, Hunter College Student:
I've actually never heard that term, I've mostly heard of the male gaze. But when I think about it I guess it's something that's more empowered, like reclaiming something that's been taken from women. I'm an art history major, so I've actually read a lot about the male gaze this past year, and yeah, for me it's something that might be a little more empowering as opposed to something that's about men taking away from women.

How do you define a cult classic, and do you think these films are/could become cult classics?
I think they could! I think cult classics are very dramatic and niche. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of cult classics is something like Rocky Horror, or even the Room, and in this way they're all kind of over the top but at the same time there's some appeal to them and they address some kind of issue, like Rocky Horror addresses a lot of sexuality and things that people don't usually talk about in this very blown out, in your face kind of way. And I feel like these films kind of do that. They're caricatures.

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in "The Love Witch"

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Alex Brouillet, 30, filmmaker and bookseller:
The female gaze seems to be the underused gender swap of the male gaze which dominates the objectification of women in our pop culture, and I think it's part of the theme of both of these movies; taking very one-dimensional sexploitation stuff from the 70s and turning it into feminism. It's taking opposite philosophies, taking something that was anti-feminism and then turning it into feminism is excellent subversion, and that's pop art.

How do you define a cult classic, and do you think these films are/could become cult classics?
A cult classic seems to be something that you know it when you see it. It's unmistakable but it's hard to define. There's so many weird movies in 70s underground film, the whole midnight movie scene was a showcase of the fully weirdest fringe—Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead and El Topo—so, movies that are going out of their way to be completely weird become cult classics because they're going against anything that's mainstream, but they manage to gain some popularity and gain some traction and last over time. And I suppose that's what it takes. And sometimes you can imitate cult classics and it becomes that, which is kind of what The Love Witch and Viva seem to be.

From "Viva"

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Maria Lawrence, 23:
I guess the female gaze to me is like seeing inside yourself, and seeing what makes you comfortable, how much you want to explore, and where you don't want to go, with sexuality or with anything.

How do you define a cult classic, and do you think these films are/could become cult classics?
A cult classic has a group of obsessed people who could really identify with something, and that's why they become obsessed. And usually to me it's a bunch of weirdos, which is great. These, I'm not sure… I don't think I would ever be a cult follower of these so I'm not sure. But I could see some people.

There was a lot of laughter in the theater, do you think it was comedic laughter or uncomfortable laughter?
Yeah there was one scene [in Viva] some people were laughing at, I think it was the scene with the two guys, after she had gotten her hair cut and they had drugged her. And people were laughing but it made me really uncomfortable, because I get that the guy, especially the gay guy was a funny character, but what they were doing was really not funny. I didn't think it was a funny movie. I get that it's stylized so it's easy to laugh at, but when you take a step back, it's not really funny. I think it's a little dangerous.

From "Viva"

What does the female gaze mean to you?
Beth Wachtel-Lipke, 48, Creative Content Editor:
It's definitely about taking back the way women are viewed by others. You know, women I think can take on a male gaze when looking at themselves and other women, so I think that for me it really is an adjustment, especially as someone who's maybe a little bit older than a lot of people who are coming to the film, sort of resetting a visual compass. [Viva] was actually a sort of problematic film for me because I'd seen the clip at the museum show, and you see the orgy scene but you don't think the context, so you think she's got full agency, she's made this decision to offer up her body. But now you see the full movie, and she's drugged and raped. And that's sort of problematic to me in terms of the female gaze. That a woman made that.

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How do you define a cult classic, and do you think these films are/could become cult classics?
I'm just gonna go with what I think is pretty standard and uninteresting, which is that it just has that inexplicable draw for people, word of mouth, and also just transcends time. Viva looks like it was made in the 70s but it was made in [2007], and I really could see it going that way, and I feel like The Love Witch even more so. Everyone's talking about it, so it's sort of already reached that status.

There was a lot of laughter in the theater, do you think it was comedic laughter or uncomfortable laughter?
I laughed a lot. I found it enjoyable to laugh in it, right from the beginning. So I'm gonna go ahead and say part comedy. Erotic comedy, if that's a genre.