The Woman Behind 'The Love Witch' on Creating a Film for Female Pleasure
"The Love Witch" is a swooning technicolor fairytale about an extremely stylish witch determined to find love using any means necessary—including murder. We spoke to director Anna Biller about women in film and the rise of the occult.
All stills from "The Love Witch"
For a film that was seven years in the making, The Love Witch couldn't have arrived at a better time. The swooning homage to 60s Technicolor cinema comes hot on the heels of movie offerings like latest Blair Witch movie and Robert Eggers' critically acclaimed film The Witch, a mangled folk tale of a New England settler family pursued by supernatural forces.
"[My film] became timely now, but I didn't miss the boat, at least," director and writer Anna Biller laughs. But it's also a very different proposition when compared to its cinematic cousins—for one thing, its protagonist has more in common with classic Hollywood glamor icons than a hag in the woods. Elaine, a beautiful young witch in a psychedelic print tea dress and Brigitte Bardot up-do, is obsessed with finding The One. And she's willing to pursue it by any magical—and murderous—means necessary.
This is Biller's second feature film, and it is a intensely devoted labor of love in more ways than one: in the kind of aesthetic and authorial commitment that makes Quentin Tarantino look like a pussy, she made many of her highly stylized props and costumes by hand, even searching vintage clothing shops and tailoring dresses by hand for her actors. We talked to Biller about the female gaze, the enduring relevance of witchcraft, and why cinema is getting worse—not better—at representing women onscreen.
BROADLY: I've seen this film described as a horror, a comedy, and a thriller. Where would you place it on that spectrum?
Anna Biller: It's all of those things. It's also a tragedy. It's almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. I see it as [movie about] a woman who is really searching for love, and it's a real quest for her: Her heart is broken, everyone's heart is broken, and people die. It's a mythic tragedy, really.
Elaine is a compelling character. She seems like a sinister villain, but it's a lot more complicated than that.
If you want a good villain, you have to have empathy and show their weakness and flaws. Everything that constitutes Elaine's character is something that has been socially determined by being a woman living in a man's world, and [from] being disappointed and abused and shamed over and over again. Her whole life [consists of] this pressure, so she's taking revenge.
What inspired the idea of The Love Witch? Were you inspired to make a film about witchcraft and the occult?
That was the first thing—then it very quickly became just about my life. I was having a difficult time in my relationship. I went through this pathetic stage where I was reading self-help books about "how to get your man back." They were all saying, "Don't love him too much, that's the way to get him back," and I thought, That's crazy. And that got the seed of the movie planted: the idea that men can't stand love, can't handle love; it can kill them.
Have you always been into witchcraft and the occult?
Yeah, I have. I remember the best present I ever got when nine years was I got a tarot deck from a friend of my mother's. That's when I became fascinated with witchcraft. I've always dabbled in it a little, but but not too seriously. Just kind of a hobby. It's been on the back burner.
What type of research did you do for this film?
I just read so many books, lots of books. I have friends who are witches and I interviewed them and went to their classes and started making spells. I did some online research, looked at forums. I think I got a pretty good sense about what it's all about and one thing that was really interesting to me was just how non-uniform it is. It's a kind of made-up religion. It just started really in the 50s, it's very young and has had many reincarnations since then.
What do you think of the revival of the interest in witchcraft and paganism in young women?
Witches are powerful, and women like to be powerful. Women don't have too many role models that are powerful in culture. We have classic old films, film noir in the 40s or 50s—there are a lot of powerful women in those films, [but] we don't have women in films like that anymore. But we do have witches.
One of the unique things about The Love Witch is that the witch is actually the central figure. In other witch films, like The Blair Witch Project, you don't really get to see the witch. In The Witch, you don't really even see the witches in full until the final shot.
Those are different kinds of witch, the "fairytale hag in the woods" kind of witch. But Elaine, she's a glamor witch. You did have some films [from] classic Hollywood about glamor witches: Kim Novak plays a sexy, modern witch [in Bell, Book and Candle], or there's the 60s series Bewitched. Witches reflect the time: Now we live in a time which there is so much misogyny and you don't have female characters front and center, so why would witches be treated any differently in male-made movies? We can be relegated to the sidelines and be old, ugly hags who are scary and terrible.
Right now, there's a sense that cinema has lacked strong female characters as well as women behind the cameras. From your perspective, are things are getting any better?
In cinema, things are definitely getting worse. Look at movies in the early 30s—they have the strongest [female] characters we've ever seen. Then it starts getting a little worse in the late 30s and 40s. It starts getting conflicted in the 50s. In the 60s it's all over. [Female characters are] all bad, especially the femme fatale—she emerges very strongly in the 50s as a evil character, but in the 30s she was not evil. She was someone you could have a lot of sympathy with, because life was stacked against her. You still get those incredible heroines, but you get them less and less. Female characters that are strong can't be glamorous anymore.
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You've talked about Laura Mulvey and her theory of the male gaze in cinema, and the opposite of that, the female gaze. What do you imagine to be the female gaze?
Laura Mulvey said that there is a narcissistic gaze for the man in the movie: You want to be the cowboy in the Western, you want to be that guy. Same thing. Women admire other women in the same way that men admire other men... That's one of the reasons why I love old movies, because of the glamor and the makeup and the strong female characters. They're witty and sassy and fabulous. In these newer movies, it's like, "Wow, these women are such a drag—[she's] somebody's girlfriend, how boring is that?"
I think, unfortunately, it's become a bit of a guilty pleasure. Like, we're supposed to say, "Oh I watched that movie for the costumes" like we're slightly embarrassed about it.
What are man's guilty pleasures? Watching movies where people are stabbed to death and beheaded? We're supposed to feel guilty for looking at a dress?
It's a crazy double standard.
Movies have been constructed for male pleasure for so long. It didn't used to be like that. They would make movies of equal amounts for man and women... I think at some point [Hollywood] realized that women would go see anything and that men would not go to see anything. Men were not going to see movies about women, and they had to stop making them.
The Love Witch opens in select cinemas on November 11.