★ ★ ★ ★
Raven-haired witchy chick Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is driving down California highways and talking to herself in a voice-over monologue in the opening scenes of The Love Witch, just as Marion Crane did in the beginning of Psycho during her own white-knuckle drive into sexual obsession’s heart of darkness. In that movie, the female driver was the victim of someone else’s fixation; this time around, Elaine is the one with a dangerously all-consuming desire for intimacy. She’s left one lover dead back in San Francisco, and now this black widow in frosted blue eye shadow is on her way to Los Angeles, where she rents a room that’s already fortuitously appointed with every comfort a practicing sorceress needs: zodiac-and-tarot-themed décor; a mad scientist’s lab for distilling and conjuring nostrums; and a pentagram rug that she lolls upon in diaphanous lingerie, while moaning for her true inamorato to find her.
Elaine’s misadventures in tracking down a lover who will satisfy her ravenous heart are the bulk of this conspicuously groovy melodrama, which is done in a vintage giallo-esque style that harkens back to Mario Bava and the yes-it’s-really-a-genre of 1970s occult porn, as if Douglas Sirk shot movies at Plato’s Retreat. (It’s such a dead-on re-creation that this critic thought, after only seeing the poster and trailer, that this was a restored version of a lost drive-in flick rather than an entirely new work of cinema.) Writer/director/editor/composer/costume designer/art director Anna Biller (whose previous movie Viva has become a minor cult classic) saturates her films with a fiendish attention to vividly retro mise-en-scène that’s reminiscent of Queer Cinema directors like Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine) or James Bidgood (Pink Narcissus). This milieu serves as the backdrop for an unhasty narrative that has some of the same sleepwalker sensuality as Daughters of Darkness or Picnic at Hanging Rock.
There’s been a lot of namechecking so far in this review, a defensive gesture that’s anticipating a harrumphing chorus of (male?) critical denigration: The Love Witch is only aping a visual style rather than critiquing or innovating on its tropes; it’s too slow; it should make up its mind about whether it’s campy or serious; its dreamy locales and coincidences reek of the wish fulfillment of Harlequin paperbacks; its feminist subtexts are too blatant; and anyway, how can anyone take this junk seriously -- this stupid, small, silly trifle about a woman’s stupid, small, silly emotional life?
But The Love Witch shares the same nakedly yearning heart as fan fiction (another denigrated genre created mostly by women). It delights in the luxuriant and fashionable; it’s honest about the intoxicating desire that women feel to love and be loved; and, just to rightly shame its detractors, it argues in one monologue (delivered against a burlesque striptease) that to revere a hyper-rational, detached appreciation of art ignores the primordial feminine. In an equally style-driven film directed by a gay man, this would all be forgiven as a brave expression of the queer heart, but The Love Witch will have an uphill battle for legitimacy as a movie made to unabashedly satisfy female cravings for self-validity, glamour, and, yes, love. Let this rave review, no matter how slapped down it may become in the ugly bro-policed maw of the Internet or the patriarchal canon of film criticism, stand tall in defending The Love Witch’s lurid, tender, singular heart.