The Love Witch is a 2016 American comedy horror film written, edited, directed, produced, and scored by Anna Biller. The film stars Samantha Robinson as Elaine Parks, a modern-day witch who uses spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her with disastrous results. Shot in Los Angeles and Arcata, California, it premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. In May 2016, it was acquired for distribution at the Cannes Marché du Film by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
The film received a limited release in the United States on November 11, 2016. The Love Witch was shot on 35mm film, and printed from an original cut negative. The film was acclaimed by critics for its playful tribute to 1960s horror and Technicolor films, combined with its serious inquiry into contemporary gender roles.
The Love Witch uses the figure of the witch as a metaphor for women in general, as both an embodiment of men's fears of women, and of women's own innate powers of intuition and as mothers and sorceresses. The lead character of the film is a young woman who uses magic to make men love her. Her character is an examination of the femme fatale archetype. The film embraces the camp of 1960s horror, examining issues of love, desire, and narcissism through a feminist perspective. Anna Biller is a feminist filmmaker whose take on cinema is influenced by feminist film theory.
While writing the script for The Love Witch, Biller had been reading relationship self-help books, and one particular piece of advice that stuck out to her was that if a woman wants to keep a man around, she should love him less than he loves her. She noticed a parallel between this advice and the female characters in classic cinema who love someone to death, such as Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, so she decided to create the character Elaine in that same vein. Biller also studied witchcraft as research for the film, including trying her own witchcraft practice, and ended up decorating Elaine's apartment with colors from the Thoth tarot deck.
The film is highly stylized with elaborate set and costume design and a color palette to match the aesthetic of a 1960s Technicolor film. Although the film emulates a 1960s look, the story is set in the present day and features modern cars and mobile phones. One of Biller's stated goals is to bring "female glamor" back to films, and she believes that including stylish, detailed sets and props will fulfill women's fantasies rather than men's, and give viewers more to look at on screen, rather than focusing their attention on the female characters as sexual objects. Anna Biller designed the sets and costumes to emulate the style of classic Hollywood films, a years-long process that involved searching for the necessary vintage furniture at salvage stores or creating it herself if she couldn't find one. For example, it took Biller 6 months to make Elaine's pentagram rug from scratch. Costume design was treated the same way: Biller found vintage pieces that worked well for the film, such as Gunne Sax dresses from the '60s and '70s, but many important pieces she had to make herself. In some cases, she found vintage clothing with fabric in colors that isn't sold anymore to rebuild as needed, in other cases she made pieces from scratch. She spent over a year working full-time designing and building the Renaissance costumes for the mock wedding scene.
She also collaborated closely with her cinematographer M. David Mullen, who is an expert on period cinematography and who has been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, to create the hard lighting style characteristic of Classic Hollywood films. Diffusion filters were used on the lens for certain close up shots, and a special kaleidoscope lens was used for drug trip sequence. For the driving scenes, rear projection photography was used to give glamour to the lead actress, and in tribute to the opening of the Hitchcock film The Birds.
The Love Witch is one of the last films to cut an original camera negative on 35mm film. It was the only new (non-repertory) feature film presented at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam on 35mm film.
The Love Witch received universal acclaim. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95% based on 109 reviews, with an average rating of 7.72/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "The Love Witch offers an absorbing visual homage to a bygone era, arranged subtly in service of a thought-provoking meditation on the battle of the sexes." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average rating of 82 out of 100, based on 27 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". The film is listed as a "Metacritic must-see".
The Love Witch won in a tie for the Trailblazer Award and Best Costume Design at the Chicago Indie Critics Awards, and also won the Michael Cimino Best Film Award at the American Independent Film Awards. The Dublin Film Critics' Circle awarded M. David Mullen Best Cinematography for The Love Witch. Samantha Robinson was nominated for Best Actress for the 2017 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for her performance as Elaine, and Emma Willis was nominated for the Technical Achievement Award for her hair and makeup on the film by the London Film Critics' Circle. In a New York Times editorial, A. O. Scott mentioned Anna Biller as worthy of receiving an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Love Witch.
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