Just what is it that women really want?

Medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer gave his adamantly serial bride, the Wife of Bath, almost 1,300 lines of his “Canterbury Tales” to consider this inexhaustible question. Responding to the often unflattering portraits of women that her fellow (and mostly male) pilgrims had painted, the Wife boldly spends more time telling her own story (of marrying husband after husband to pay her the marriage debt) than she does in telling her actual tale.

The form of the Wife’s narrative thus informs its elegantly precise but endlessly resonant meaning: a woman wants her will, and she will have it, whether the men around her will or no.

Six centuries and more later, director Anna Biller has given us The Love Witch, which eagerly and expertly uses the resources of film to complicate the Wife of Bath’s answer. Like Barbi, the beleaguered protagonist that Biller herself played in her 2007 debut feature, Viva, Elaine in The Love Witch struggles with both the men and women in her life to pursue and finally have her will.

But unlike the more outwardly innocent Barbi, Elaine has a crystal clear vision of what her will looks like – and much more powerful means to realize it. As the title of the film promises, the beautiful, bewitching Elaine will have love, but not, Biller artfully ensures, with the results that she desires.

Homage – And More

In one of the film’s many nods to Hitchcock, The Love Witch opens with Elaine alone in a car, fleeing her past. Our witch, we learn very quickly, is haunted by voices and visions, particularly of her werewolf-haired but clean-shaven and unsettlingly smiling ex-husband, Jerry, who appears in the film only in flashback and voiceover.

When Elaine reaches into her handbag for a cigarette in these opening shots, Biller also plants the first of innumerable visual metaphors. Out of her purse tumbles not Marion Crane’s wad of ill-gotten cash, but a handful of Tarot cards, emblems of Elaine’s desire to foresee and control her destiny in love – and an omen of her ultimate inability to do so.

All the signs of a horror film homage to the master of suspense are set in place within these first few minutes. Our protagonist suffers violent flashbacks, discloses a history of clinical treatment (‘They say I’m cured now’), and is determined to create a new life for herself among strangers. But Biller is just getting started stocking this bubbling cauldron with her carefully-chosen ingredients, and it’s only in the film’s final moments that it becomes clear just how thick and heady a brew she has concocted from these very first scenes.

Elaine alights in a small town where she’s sure she’ll be treated well, and Biller immediately expands the film’s philosophical framework by introducing us to one of her love witch’s natural foils.

Interior decorator Trish is the friend of a friend who lets Elaine into a corner Victorian mansion to see her new room. But Trish’s sincere welcome quickly grows strained, and the visual mismatch between her sensible professional, buttoned up in pink and white with a frilly lace collar at the throat, and Elaine’s lithe, confident runway beauty in a short, red, Chris De Burgh daydream of a dress suggests why. Trish immediately surprises and embarrasses herself to notice Elaine’s striking looks, eying the newcomer still more dubiously up and down when Elaine mentions that she’s a dancer.

The Love Witch: A Heady Brew
Love witch Elaine meets her foil, interior decorator Trish – source: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Tea Room Tête-à-Tête

Biller builds the tension between Elaine and Trish in a superbly unsettling scene inside a beatifically lit tea room. Elaine now joins Trish and most of the other patrons (all women) in a combination of white and pink, her gloriously wide-brimmed hat claiming half and more of the screen when Biller shows her in single. The china clinks pristinely with the server’s fastidious manners, and a rather sharp-eyed blonde plays the harp and sings airily of a fairy princess who finds love in a gown of pink and purple roses.

This almost caricatural female space provides the perfectly, ironically gauzy backdrop for the dangerous stakes that Elaine and Trish proceed to lay out between them. Love-starved Elaine argues that women exist to realize men’s fantasies for them, while the comfortably-married Trish laughs in surprise and horror at the very idea of doing so for her husband. Their clear, irreconcilable antagonism establishes fatefully narrow boundaries for feminine behavior in the film.

In another of the film’s many clever touches, Trish’s husband shows up to end the tea room tête-à-tête. Biller arrests him for a moment, tall and awkward among all the seated women as he gazes with wonder and palpable appetite at the stranger siren; clearly distracted, he then proceeds to suggestively place his hands over his wife’s eyes from behind. Trish scolds him for invading a space where only women are allowed, but the real problem is that it already has been invaded by Elaine, who poses far worse than fantasy danger to Trish’s whole world.

The Love Witch: A Heady Brew
Who’s fooling whom in the Tea Room? – source: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Everything that follows in the film is inflected by the rivalry that Elaine and Trish map out in these early scenes. Their competing views of women’s ideal relations with men haunt Elaine’s ensuing love affairs. Men fall under her spell and initially revel in her ability to realize their fantasies, but only to pay unexpected prices.

One particularly helpless swain, shaking with lust and illicit joy as Elaine gives herself to him, wonders aloud, “Who are you?!” Elaine pours all of her own most fervid joy into her shouted response, “I’m the love witch — I’m your ultimate fantasy!”

Elaine looks toward the ceiling and closes her eyes when she declares herself, tittering girlishly at the thought (the only time we hear her laugh in the film). The message is clear: he is the vehicle of her desires, not the other way around, a pathetic slave to the fantasy identity that she has imagined (at least for the moment) into being.

Elaine’s implicit contest with Trish for female ascendancy even informs scenes in which she is not present. One of my favorite hilarious and agonizing scenes in the film has newly-promoted police sergeant Griff Meadows striding right through the overtures of Connie, a woman officer, to compare notes about the morning coffee with a male detective. Does female desire even exist for a man like Griff? Not, apparently, when it wears a beat cop’s uniform and stands between him and his morning cup of joe.

Everything She Knows About Men

That scene in the police station is one of many that stoke the film’s defining conflict between bluff, cocksure masculinity and vulnerable, restless femininity. Elaine has become the love witch, we learn in flashback, only under the disturbingly violent tutelage of the local coven, who initiate her into their ranks in ceremonies devised to control and exploit female sexuality.

While they outwardly rebel against middle-class sensibilities, Elaine’s masters in the art of witchcraft ultimately work to reproduce and entrench the most misogynistic elements of the patriarchy within her. (Incidentally, Biller treats the supernatural, mystic, and pagan arts with great respect on the whole; Elaine’s problem is with this specific group of practitioners, not alternative belief systems in general.)

Biller realizes these ironies most sadly and eloquently in a precisely crosscut and superbly painful burlesque scene in the local bar. While real-life dancer April Showers bumps and grinds herself down to her pasties for a crowd of cheering and jeering men, the priest and priestess of the local coven instruct their newest initiates, a pair of fresh-faced, obedient young blondes called Star and Moon, to ‘celebrate’ their sexuality by putting it on display for the consumption of men.

Elaine notes that she learned everything she knows about men from the coven. No surprise, then, that in becoming their ultimate fantasy as the love witch, Elaine has also doomed herself and her lovers to horror and violence.

Elaine’s deadly adventures in love climax when Sergeant Griff, who has been pursuing her uneasily, saves her from the local, witch-hating townies and is offered Elaine’s final potion. The detective’s wordless response unknowingly sets everything in place for Elaine to bring one of her most starkly colorful paintings to fateful life. The oblivious coffee connoisseur of a detective too, it turns out, finally reduces himself to just a human prop in her psychodrama.

Love Idyll – Or Just Fantasy?

But the true emotional climax of the film actually precedes the plot climax. Several scenes before the mob begins chanting “Burn the witch!”, Biller conjures a deceptively breezy Renaissance Fair idyll to adorn Elaine and her man in white and unite them in a ring-exchange ceremony.

The Love Witch: A Heady Brew
Can Elaine turn her fantasy into reality? — source: Oscilloscope Laboratories

But however pretty, their formal union fails to resolve the ever bubbling tension between remote, distrustful masculinity and eager, vulnerable femininity. Even as they laugh and feed each other cake at the marriage table, the newly united bride and groom reveal in their voiced-over thoughts how hopelessly far apart they remain: all she feels is surprising, overpowering joy in her love for him, but his thoughts quickly gather to a defensive, cynical, clichéd dismissal of women as an unknowable and uncontrollable mystery. He might be willing to play her Prince Charming, but he’s certainly not about to become one.

The fair scene shimmers between fantasy and reality, and deliberately, artfully brings the film to this emotional nadir. A white-faced jester in harlequins with his puppet-double drifts ominously through these images of impossible happiness, joining in the song for the line, “When love dies, all life it does destroy.” Biller deploys the jester for the last time in the carefully, hauntingly-scored final scene that draws the curtain down decisively on Elaine’s dreams of blissful union.

Philosophically Provocative Fairy Tale

But the tragically elusive (and destructive) qualities of Elaine’s fantasies shouldn’t obscure the intricate love that Biller lavishes on her witch’s story. If you come to this keen-eyed, philosophically provocative fairy tale of a film for the mere turns of its plot, or even for the consistently ironized nudity, it may well leave you impatient or disappointed.

Some viewers certainly have insisted on such unfortunate approaches. In social media chatter and in many reviews, Biller’s films have regularly and painfully been miscast as a kind of retro-pastiche or, still more absurdly, as exploitation fare. Of The Love Witch, one pithily inattentive viewer tweeted that he’d never been so bored and horny at the same time. Small wonder: trying to watch Biller’s film as a skin flick would be like watching Schindler’s List for the Auschwitz shower scenes or Platoon for the cool jungle action.

What The Love Witch offers up instead of helpless pastiche or cheap exploitation thrills is an aesthetically sophisticated and deeply-layered dramatization of the gender obstacles that we continue to embed so dauntingly and stubbornly within even our most intimate and loving relationships. And Biller’s mastery of these themes shows up everywhere in the film’s inspired visual and verbal wit, touches that the director always integrates seamlessly and meaningfully into Elaine’s story.

A perfectly-matched cut connects the shovel a detective uses to dig up a fresh grave with the fork that Elaine’s latest mark uses to dig into a piece of cake. A pan shot shows a car with Elaine and her hairiest consort backing up from a store named “Panache” to another named “Natural Selection,” subtly suggesting the dimensions of their ominously regressive pairing. A young and plausibly Hitchcockian blonde improbably clutches both the Romantic libertine poet Byron and a book entitled “Christian Heroes” to her breast as she is unhappily spurned for the bewigged brunette of the film’s title.

What Women And Men Want?

In every scene, every shot, Biller fills the attentive viewer’s eyes and ears with ardent meaning and her film with the subtle but expansive philosophical implications of our chronically blighted gender relations. Elaine is realized not just by Samantha Robinson’s poised, potent performance, but by her precisely-scripted dialogue and by her deftly orchestrated actions within the minutely-furnished, hard-lit, almost shockingly colorful world that Biller has constructed for her.

The Love Witch responds to the Wife of Bath’s timeless question about what women want not simply with Elaine’s desperate attempts to turn her beleaguered reality into impossible fantasy. Still more, the film works cleverly and determinedly to expose and finally explode the tensions and incomprehensions that our gender norms so often confine us within. And perhaps most urgently, Biller brings to striking life the emblems of fantasy that linger patiently and hopefully within our wobbly day-to-day reality, giving women and men a glimpse of what both want when they have fallen under love’s spell.

Is The Love Witch just a fantasy?

The Love Witch was released in the U. S. on November 11, 2016, and it’s now available on Blu-Ray; it will be released in the UK on 10 March 2017. For more release details, please click here.

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