Enter the mesmerizing world of magic, sex and Anna Biller's 'The Love Witch'

Anna Biller is steaming out a curtain. The filmmaker is used to considering the smallest detail, as on her new film, “The Love Witch”: She is credited as director, writer, producer, editor, costume designer, production designer and composer. So for a recent photo shoot she helped secure the location, styled the set, spoke to her cinematographer about proper lighting and arranged for lead actress Samantha Robinson to appear in full makeup and costume. So getting out a few final wrinkles is just a part of a whole.

In “The Love Witch,” a young woman named Elaine (Robinson) arrives in a small town hoping to leave her troubles behind. A practicing witch, she creates potions and casts spells in pursuit of new love. Rather than a string of broken hearts, Elaine and her witchcraft create a growing body count.

The film exists in an idiosyncratic world that feels like an exacting re-creation of a late-’60s/early ’70s low-budget movie but with a sharp, contemporary feminist point-of-view that would never be found in some period exploitation cheapie. Films such as “The Witch” and “The Neon Demon” have most recently explored a connection between witchcraft and feminine power, but even with all its short skirts, ample cleavage and nude rituals, “The Love Witch” comes from a decidedly female point of view.

“I’m making a movie about a witch, it’s about witchcraft, and it’s going to have to put a spell on the audience,”  Biller said. “And cinema is already a magical spell, it’s already about voyeurism. So the men are being mesmerized by Elaine in the movie and I want the audience to be mesmerized by the film.”

For the Los Angeles-based Biller, the all-inclusive aspect of her work is an important element for the craft of the movies but also conjuring the specific mindset and worldview she is trying to create for an audience. Her previous feature was 2007’s “Viva,” in which she starred as a woman caught up in the suburban world of the 1970s sexual revolution. She spent about two years traveling and promoting the movie. Biller noted that despite the film’s positive reception and reviews, all it led to were numerous offers to appear in pornographic films from filmmakers hoping her credibility could allow them some mainstream crossover.

The anger, confusion and depression Biller felt from that response was partly what fueled the righteous fury at the heart of “The Love Witch,” even as it comes swathed in sumptuous fabrics and a palate of deeply saturated colors. It is that personal aspect that also sets her films apart from a simple retro homage or va-va-voom Russ Meyer-styled appropriation.

“What I always do is relate it to my own experience, my banal experience, my downtrodden existence as a woman in the world,” Biller said. “And this is what’s different than the films people compare my films to. There’s not that level of personal experience going into the movies men are making about sexy women. Because that’s half of it. It’s from the inside of a woman, the inside of a femme fatale.”

The film was shot in locations in Northern California and across Los Angeles. Biller enlisted cinematographer M. David Mullen, who she knew from her time at California Institute of the Arts and who went on to shoot films such as “Jennifer’s Body.” He shot “Witch” on 35-millimeter film, attempting to replicate vintage lighting and camera techniques. (Some venues, such as the Los Angeles run at the Nuart, are even exhibiting the film in 35mm.)

While Biller played the lead role in “Viva” herself, for “The Love Witch” she knew she needed an actress with abilities beyond what she felt she was capable of. While meeting with actresses to cast the part, she had an immediate feeling about Robinson.

“She’s got this weird bitchy diffidence,”  Biller said. “Actors are so hungry and they just want the part and they come in all whiny and desperate. And she just came in and was like, whatever.”

Waiting for the photo shoot, Robinson, who has her first lead role in the film, was checking her cellphone while dressed in a sheer black dressing gown, vintage-style bullet bra, garter belt, briefs, stockings and heels. Her elaborate hair and electric eye makeup, along with dramatic statement jewelry, felt at once ceremonial and somehow casual.

Robinson noted how in preparation she and Biller watched a number of films together including “Leave Her to Heaven” starring Gene Tierney and “Secret Ceremony” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow. But for Robinson it was Biller and the world she created that provided the greatest inspiration.

“I was so in awe of her attention to detail and it was inspiring to me as an actress,” Robinson said of Biller. “The way you came on set and everything was so impeccable, you just live in this world. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced as an actress before.” 

“She creates an entire universe. It’s hers,” added Jared Sanford, executive producer and an actor in the film. Sanford is a longtime collaborator of Biller’s, and it is his Los Feliz home that provided the location for the photo shoot and also where Biller stores racks of costumes and many props. “She chose every object and every color, every moment is an invention by her. So it is a complete world.”

While she is cautious to warn that “The Love Witch” is not just sexploitation pastiche, Biller also wants to make it clear that it’s OK  to be turned on by the movie, but asks viewers not to just stop there. For straight men in particular, the idea that a movie can be sexy and playful on the surface and also contain something deeper underneath can cause scrambled circuits and feelings of internal confusion. And that’s OK too.

“On some level I was doing that on purpose to men. My intention is to mesmerize men in this way, being sexually stunned by the film,”  Biller said. “What I object to is when people say that all I was doing was this thing for men. Because I’m doing a double thing, I’m doing a thing for men and I’m doing a thing for women. And the thing I’m doing for women tends to be invisible to men and I like that.” 

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