Falling for The Love Witch, an interview with Anna Biller

First published by Kino! 28-29.

Back in January at International Film Festival Rotterdam, among the hundreds of films screening, a path emerged that lead led this writer to films concerned with womanhood. Nicolette Krebitz’s Wild took the notion of the wild woman archetype literally, playing deviously with female instinct and longing. Elizabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part, explored the mid-life crisis of a woman shifting roles on screen and off, while Melisa Liebenthal’s Bright Future award winning documentary Las Lindas, looked sensitively at the entrenched societal conditioning of young girls to become ‘pretty.’

Unlike any other film at IFFR however, was Anna Biller’s gloriously technicolour The Love Witch (2016). In it, a young woman, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) moves to a new city following the mysterious death of her ex-husband, with the intention of finding her true love. Initiated into the use of sex and love magic by a cult of witches, Elaine is adamant that her potions will release the true potential of any man she sets her heart on. Building on the themes of female and male power and sexuality, explored in her previous feature Viva (2007) and her short films, Three Examples of Myself as a Queen (1994), The Hypnotist (2001), and A Visit from the Incubus (2001), Biller has created with The Love Witch, the ultimate evocation of the absurdity of gender inequality, realised in a perfectly rendered, beautiful film world. Elaine’s quest for her ideal man—one whose masculinity will act in polarity to her femininity—brings her into contact with men who celebrate her physical appearance—the ‘libertine’ Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) and married ‘good guy’ Richard (Robert Seeley), and women who oppose her ideas about how to manipulate men.

Clearly traumatised by her past experiences as the wife of an ungrateful, oppressive man, and now uncomfortable with cult leader, Gahan (played by Biller’s long term collaborator and executive producer Jared Sanford), Elaine struggles to find the right man who will not fall apart when confronted with ‘so much love.’ Recently promoted detective Griff (Gian Keys) seems to possess the qualities Elaine is searching for in a man, but both his professional and personal interests may not match with Elaine’s ideals.

Having written the screenplay, designed and made costumes, composed the score, designed the set, produced and directed The Love Witch, Biller is here in total command of her vision, and it’s one both intellectually rigorous and astonishingly beautiful. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer M. David Mullen, every detail supports the aesthetic of Elaine’s world view, one which idolises the look and feel of classic Hollywood (All that Heaven Allows, [1955], Marnie [1964]) and the French New Wave (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [Les parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964]), whilst existing very much in the present. Being a director that epitomises the notion of independent filmmaking, Biller’s aesthetic preferences present an unusual dichotomy between at once paying tribute to the studio system, whilst working outside of it and presenting an alternative to the typical American indie movie. At the same time, Biller’s screenplay for The Love Witch allows the director’s feminism to be articulated through the perspectives of her characters. Whilst Elaine is most obviously conditioned by the patriarchy into becoming a feminine ideal, she is aware of where that same patriarchy has failed her, and how she can wield power over men. Likewise, the character of Trish (Laura Waddell), Elaine’s new friend, is first opposed to Elaine’s seemingly anti-feminist world view, but cannot avoid being seduced by her own appearance when she attempts to emulate her. Finally, Biller tackles the objectification of women head on, in a thought-provoking scene presenting the benefits of burlesque and ‘sexual dancing’, where Gahan and fellow witch Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) suggest women should reclaim their sexual power from those who feared it; ‘we don’t view this power as satanic or anti-feminist.’ The result is a film that both gives and critiques various forms of pleasure; scopophilic, sexual, aesthetic, making The Love Witch a richly entertaining and vital work of pure cinema. What follows is an interview with Anna Biller conducted via email between March-April, in which I asked the director her thoughts on aesthetics, funding, feminism and the female gaze.

Harriet Warman: The Love Witch took a number of years to complete, since your last feature, Viva and you undertook a lot of the production yourself, beyond writing the screenplay and directing. Can you describe how your vision for the film extended to undertaking a lot of the production yourself (music composition, set design, costume design etc.) and how this related to the film’s funding?
Anna Biller: The set design for a film is very personal for me, and is very much related to the themes I’m trying to bring out, so designing the sets for me is as important as writing the script. The ideas I have for design are partly from memories of my childhood,
films I’ve watched, the way a colour or texture makes me feel. I have very strong emotions that come from certain types of design, and my goal is to impart those emotions to my audience. The costumes also say so much about a character, and each costume is selected or designed very carefully. As for music, I select as much music as possible from pre-existing sources, and then whatever I can’t find I write myself. I tried to use pre-existing harp and renaissance faire music for The Love Witch, but my boyfriend said it was not working and that I had to write it myself. Cursing all the way, I taught myself to compose for harp and a period wind ensemble, which took a long time, but I am pleased with the results.

Where our low budget becomes a problem is when things actually have to get constructed. I tried to hire a designer friend to make my renaissance costumes, but she looked at my sketches and just shook her head, saying, “This is too much work!” She was the only costume designer I trusted to pick the right fabrics and patterns, so I ended up doing the work myself. When I started to make them, I could see what she meant about the amount of work: the costumes took me a full year, involving as they did many pieces including hose, headdresses, over-tunics and under-tunics, capes, etc. We obviously didn’t have the budget to hire someone for a year to make costumes for just one scene.

HW: The Love Witch is set in present day, but the ‘world’ that its central character— Elaine—seems to live in, is closer to the 1970’s look of Viva.
AB: I don’t think of it as 70’s aesthetic as much as I see it as a type of movie aesthetic. In older movies, they got rid of visual clutter and tried to make everything in the frame purposeful. So they’d shoot on sets so you didn’t have inconvenient details such as electrical plugs, or walls that didn’t look good against skin colour, and they’d coordinate the clothes to be harmonious with the background so that nothing would distract. Everything was highly designed, tightly controlled in order to bring maximum clarity to the visual story that was being told, and the lighting, shots and editing also all informed the story very purposefully and was meant to be glamorous, poetic, and symbolic. Movies were not meant to be like real life, but an artistic expression and interpretation of life. We have gone so far into worshipping the naturalistic, but everything in a movie is a construction. Naturalism is just another style. Concerns such as glamour, poetry, and symbolism now are seen as dated. But I love this type of filmmaking and I try to emulate it. So for instance I’m making a movie about a witch, so her environment, her clothing, her makeup, everything about her must be enchanting and magical. People today find that type of symbolism ridiculous, but I think it’s a very effective way to tell a story, and I love the classic cinema that used those devices.

HW: The film as a ‘construction’ —as you say—has a hugely pleasurable effect, and there is  a level of absurdity in some of the details—such as the paintings Elaine seems to be ‘reworking’ and the quaint Victorian tea room—that make The Love Witch a film you
might want to escape into, away from ‘reality.’ Yet rather than being a fantasy world, Elaine’s experience is very relatable—can you tell me a little about how this particular aesthetic was right for Elaine’s experience?
AB: Pleasure is a big part of filmmaking for me. I feel that male fantasy is mainly what we experience in cinema, but women have fantasies too. There is this idea that feminists are these dour people with no sense of humour and that men own pleasure and especially erotic and visual pleasure. I have my own world of cinephilia, and my own world of private experiences I draw from, and my films combine those two things. Elaine is a witch and an artist who creates her own world, and her paintings reflect her own inner fantasies. She paints herself nude, ripping a man’s heart out or bonding with a unicorn with men’s heads floating out of a magical chalice. In the tea room, she becomes a princess in a pink gown and flower-trimmed hat. These are her self-fantasies: to be the most beautiful, the most desired, the most powerful, the witch as princess, siren and supreme narcissist. This inner world is going to seem insane especially to men, but I think it reflects the inner fantasy worlds of a lot of women. It’s the iconic female fantasy template, and it’s the opposite of how men view women—as pretty but powerless. Women want to be pretty and powerful, and some of our fantasies are indeed absurd. Of course I’m not speaking for all women— some women will object strongly to Elaine’s feminine self-construction—but in general men will want to see Elaine nude, and women will want to see her in Victorian gowns with great makeup and hair.

HW: The Love Witch exposes the absurdity of white, male privilege. Wayne feels entitled to sex without the ‘compromise’ of emotional attachment, Richard feels he’s entitled to get up to ‘mischief’ because he’s been such a good husband, while Griff considers marriage just a means to getting an ‘heir’. It’s refreshing to see their perspectives presented in such a humorous way—I felt The Love Witch invited me to laugh at their assumptions of entitlement, unlike so many studio romantic comedies that seem to obliviously reinforce sexist male/female roles. Do you consider yourself to be in opposition to the usual tropes of male/female relationships in film?
AB: Absolutely! As women we experience male entitlement every day in our lives, and it’s oppressive.  I include it because it’s part of Elaine’s experience—its part of every woman’s experience who dates or even interacts with men. But male entitlement is almost never called out in movies anymore, even in movies targeted to women. I am a big fan of classic Hollywood romantic comedies such as Bringing up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940), but what you’ll notice is that in those films women and men are partners and equals, unlike in the romantic comedies of today. I think media is always political, and that there is always a political point of view. Looking at the media of today, one could conclude that this is a very dark time socially for women in the world. The sheer proliferation of images of violence done to women’s bodies is unprecedented, and speaks to male rage against female voices and female agency.

HW: On the subject of female agency, you outline the complexity of perspectives on female sexuality so succinctly in The Love Witch—particularly in the scene at the burlesque club where Gahan describes to his students the power of sexual dancing, that it expresses a power long feared by society. What’s your take on burlesque and where the power lies—is it with the women who command an audience and admiration, or the men who objectify the women?
AB: Since men hold the systemic power in society, and since men dictate that women who perform sexually for men will be highly rewarded, I would have to say that men hold the power. But this isn’t to say that women can’t create their own power by reclaiming their sexuality for themselves, and by inspiring other women to do so as well. Burlesque can be very empowering for women both to perform and to watch, but men try to take everything sexual that women do and co-opt it for themselves, making women feel they are just doing it for the men and ruining it for the women. So for women to have power I think they have to just do what they like without regard to whether it pleases men or not.  Pleasing men could be a side-benefit, but if it is all a woman lives for then she is going to lose herself and could become very fragmented or very depressed.

HW: Elaine appears to be a textbook example of Simone de Beauvoir’s Narcissist [1]—an ‘American woman, trying to be an idol makes herself the slave of her admirers, does not dress, live or breathe other than through the man and for him.’ Were there also real world examples of women like Elaine that inspired you?
AB: Yes, Elaine is indeed a textbook example of Beauvoir’s narcissist. In creating the character I was mostly inspired by women’s magazines—from fashion magazines to Cosmo—and men’s magazines, which strongly reward women who conform to the standards of beauty of their models—and also by the culture we live in, which constantly tells girls they are successful if pretty, and ignores their other qualities. All of these things in the world—and you can add in movies, television, and all of the men that we meet in our lives, including the men who hire us and collaborate with us—conspire to create a creature like Elaine. But Elaine was also inspired by my sister. Growing up, she was always the “pretty” one and I was always the “smart” one. It was easy for both of us to see which category people preferred—and she capitalized on her popularity as a pretty girl to get everything she had in her life. But her whole self-worth hinged on that one quality alone to the detriment of her developing self-esteem in any other area, and I think this really messed her up in the long run. No matter what she accomplishes in her life, I don’t think she will ever feel acknowledged for anything other than her appearance.  I feel fortunate in a way that I didn’t “blossom” until later, so I had a fully developed ego by the time I started to be objectified by men. But of course I didn’t fully escape—I don’t think any woman does—and Elaine is also my own shadow side.

HW: The common experience you describe of women learning they will be ‘successful if pretty’ is reflected in the recent exposure and highlighting of gender and race inequality in Hollywood [2] and clearly, independent film. How do you think this relates to making films that might be considered to show the so called ‘female gaze’? [3] Does the female gaze exist and is it a useful or damaging [4] label for women filmmakers?
AB: I do think there is a female gaze, but I don’t agree with Mulvey [5] that this means women are gazing at themselves through a reversed male gaze. The problem with so much psychoanalytic theory is that it throws female psychology under the bus and insists that what women do and think is a result of brainwashing by men. So for instance, I might watch Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, and I might fall in love with Dietrich’s image, but my gaze is going to be narcissistic, the same way a man will have a narcissistic gaze when watching a handsome onscreen hero. It’s much like the narcissistic gaze women have while leafing through fashion magazines—it’s a pleasure in female beauty, glamour, and style.  And like a man watching a male hero, I am not just entranced by the way a woman looks, but by her talent, her resourcefulness, identifying with her struggles. And indeed, a film such as Blonde Venus (1932) is constructed in such a way as to facilitate female identification, like so many movies from the 1930s which were made with a female audience in mind.

I try to make films from a place of honest pleasure. I am always asking myself “what do I really want to see on the screen?” and I try to create that. I have been in love with beautiful classic movie actresses since I was a baby. Women are fabulous. Why is it that only men can fall in love with them? And it doesn’t have to be specifically erotic, it can be all kinds of love. If women can love their mothers, their sisters, their friends, themselves, then why are images of women only for men? I loved Mulvey’s essay and have used it for inspiration for my work, but we need to keep the dialogue moving. I think as more women create movies from a female point of view, we might start to relax about what types of images women are creating, and whether or not they are good for women as a whole.

End Notes
1 De Beauvoir, Simone. (1949). The Second Sex. First Vintage Books Edition May 2011, 681.
2 McCarthy, Niall. (2016). “Hollywood’s History Of Gender Inequality Visualised [Infographic]”. Forbes, Web. Also: Smith, Dr Stacy L. et al. (2015). “Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films Across 11 Countries”. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Web.
3 Silverstein, Melissa. (2015). “Embracing the Female Gaze”. Indiewire, Web.
4 Finlay, Jeanie. (2016). “Kim Longinotto in conversation with friend and fellow British documentary filmmaker Jeanie Finlay”. The Talkhouse, Web.
5 Mulvey, Laura. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. First published by Screen.

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