Most people have by now forgotten that the ubiquitous concept of "glamour" was originally part of the vocabulary of witchcraft.
Before the 19th century, "glamour" referred to a spell cast by a witch to cause people (generally men) to see things or people (usually the bewitcher herself) as the enchantress wished. She could create an irresistible impression on the minds of men in order to weaken them and lead them to perdition. Usually via sex.
The medieval and modern concepts of glamour meet in The Love Witch, L.A.-based feminist filmmaker Anna Biller's stunning second feature, which follows the havoc being wreaked by a love-obsessed witch and crafter (seriously, she makes soaps and candles) named Elaine. She arrives in a California town like a Hitchcock heroine and immediately begins casting spells on all the men in her path; she's a sexual Goldilocks trying to find one who's just right.
Biller's carefully constructed imagery is dazzling: colorful sets, detailed props (many of which are either handmade or authentic antiques), spot-on casting of character actors with looks seldom seen in contemporary cinema, and a lead actress (newcomer Samantha Robinson as Elaine) made up and styled to mesmerizing effect.
When the trailer for The Love Witch emerged online a few months ago, it became a cult hit with fans of the classic era of sexy, saturated-color horror films, circa 1967 to '73. The Hitchcock-meets–Hammer Films vibe of The Love Witch serves as its siren call, but there's much more to the film than what's on its retro-tastic surface.
"When I first started working on The Love Witch, I was going through a terrible time in my personal life," Biller says, sitting in a private dining room at Echo Park landmark Taix. "I felt like my heart was actually broken into pieces. I tried to memorize that feeling because I knew I wanted to put it in a movie."
Biller's filmmaking process is insanely intricate and laborious. The CalArts-trained filmmaker has managed to make lavish films (shot on actual film) with DIY craftiness and minute indie budgets for a couple of decades. She develops her scripts over many years, obsessing about the psychological reality of her characters. Then she sketches the elaborate sets and props and assembles them or makes them out of whole cloth (literally, in the case of drapes). Then she finds a vintage-looking cast. Oh, and she also writes and arranges much of the music.
"All the people at the prop and scenery houses around Hollywood knew me because I was there all the time," Biller says. "I used to get all my scenery from Warner Bros., MGM and Universal, but all of the scene docks have closed down. I now go to salvage places and pick out old windows and doors. That's how I put my sets together — a door here, a fireplace there. It takes years."
If the vintage piece doesn't exist, such as a pentagram rug Biller drew for a ritual scene, then she hooks it herself. "It took me six months working at night to hook the pentagram rug. It's all Persian rug wool — I wouldn't use acrylic — so it was also expensive. And then I had to learn how to make proper magic wands and soaps."
Her previous movie, 2007's underrated Viva, was a deep, moving satire about an innocent suburban housewife (played by Biller) getting lost in the sexual revolution of the early 1970s. Viva offered a modern, feminist take on Voltaire's Candide, though several critics dismissed it as "trashy fun" and couldn't look beyond what they saw as "Russ Meyer pastiche."
Now, with The Love Witch, it seems they can't stop talking about giallo films, the Italian genre from the 1960s and '70s (think Dario Argento or Mario Bava) known for stylized sets and camera angles, as well as beautiful, undressed women.
"When I was researching the script, I looked at a lot of movies, including giallo films, [but] I couldn't find a single giallo film that seemed like what I wanted to do," Biller says. "I was trying to do a movie about a powerful woman that was a femme fatale, a siren. It's really more like the noir films, thematically."
Biller has been showing The Love Witch at festivals for several months now and has noticed that the film works its magic differently on women and gay men than on straight guys.
"Women are looking at it, and they're asking about the issue of heartbreak, about the men who are self-entitled and disappoint Elaine, about female subjectivity in film, about her princess and wedding fantasies," Biller says. For straight men, "Elaine is a knockout, she has these mesmerizing eyes, she says very little, she listens to men adoringly, she's cooking and baking and stripping for them — they tend to watch the movie as if it's one big girlie mag for their pleasure. All they see is [actress] Samantha, and she looks like Edwige Fenech and Barbara Steele — and then I get compared to filmmakers I have nothing in common with, like Russ Meyer."
Biller's work is, however, informed by being a born-and-bred Angeleno. "I'm definitely a Los Angeles filmmaker," Biller asserts. "I'm making films about Los Angeles, about the history of Hollywood." She grew up in L.A. with artsy, bohemian parents — her father, Les Biller, is a painter and her mother, Sumiko, is a Japanese-American fashion designer who has run a namesake avant-classy boutique for decades.
"I grew up here and I've been so affected by it — by the movie stars that I've been seeing all my life and that my parents knew and were friends with, the people who used to come to my mother's dress shop when I was a child," Biller says. "Everyone works in the industry, everybody is an actor or a writer, and there's this kind of glamour and artifice everywhere."
When Biller was at CalArts in the '90s, her mind was blown by the surprisingly easy access she had to an actual old-school soundstage. Her classmates weren't as impressed. "Everyone else was like, 'Who wants to use this?' — they shot at their houses, they wanted realism, they thought the soundstages were hokey."
Having a deep love and understanding of classic Hollywood glamour made Biller a misfit among her self-serious, mostly male, Stan Brakhage–influenced classmates. According to the director, her very aesthetic was controversial. The artifice of acting and emoting, anything theatrical, was considered vulgar by the art-film establishment.
That she's a woman wasn't trivial, either. Like many film students of the era, Biller was influenced by Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," with its critique of the pervasive "male gaze."
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As a writer, Biller has studied the dynamics between the genders and says it's where she gets her psychological material. "There is the danger of falling in love and becoming destroyed by it," she says. "I think that this is why men avoid it: They're afraid of it, they want it to be more playful and just about sex because they don't want to be destroyed by love." Elaine's power is that she is better than men at love and certainly more dominant — she can just rip their hearts out.
Biller's domestic partner is, in fact, also an expert on a different kind of "love witchcraft": She's in a relationship with Robert Greene, author of corporate management/inspiration best-seller The 48 Laws of Power — and also of erotic advice best-seller The Art of Seduction.
"That book is dedicated to me," Biller says. "He's more famous than I am. He's fantastic. His readership is very different than my viewership. We're both interested in classic movies. We watch them together. I edit his books and he helps me with my visuals. He has a strong feminine side and I have a strong masculine side, so we balance each other out."
Biller thinks that if men watch The Love Witch and fear Elaine, they're mirroring the men in the film. And perhaps some women find her a complicated, powerful role model. "That's one thing I'm consciously trying to do," she concludes. "I wanted to create a character that has the power of the old mythical sirens, the way old Hollywood used to create a cult around its female stars with makeup and lighting."