BY LISA MARIE BASILE
When I watched The Love Witch for the first time, I was fucking floored. Here was this aesthetically gorgeous, feminist, totally nuanced, witchcraft-focused, super kitschy, sexual, glamorous, dark piece of cinema — directed by a woman.
Before I watched it, I realized most people buzzing about it on social media had nothing but absolute praise for it. It's not like any film I've ever seen — and it requires a viewer to let go and just fall into its beauty and the binaries it presents around feminism and patriarchal brainwash. I also felt it was high-time a movie deal with witchcraft in a way that didn't involve overtly goth dress and changing hair colors for fun (looking at you, The Craft), wiggling noses, or inaccurate mixups with Satanist ideologies.
I also know that the director Anna Biller (who is also the production designer, editor, producer, composer, and costume designer), took her time to study witchcraft, which makes it so delicious. I was honored to be able to speak with Anna Biller — about how much I love her work and the nuances found in it. And please read Luna Luna's review of the film here.
Lisa Marie Basile: What drew me to The Love Witch was the fact that it was about a witch, of course, but also the fact that you so unapologetically used glamor and aesthetic as its own character. How do you think its unique look enhances the way the viewer emotionally reacts to the film?
Audiences respond to cinematic images very strongly, no matter what those images are. What’s strange about many movies today is how hard they try to seem unmediated — undesigned, unlit, as if the actors are just “there” and it’s all real, like makeup that takes an hour to put on to make it look as though you’re not wearing any makeup. But these are all choices. Deciding not to have glamour in your movie, not to have aesthetics look like aesthetics – that’s a choice too. I love glamour, so I use it. It’s a personal choice. It’s what I like to see on the screen. But in the kind of lighting I like, it’s not only people that are glamorous. Objects are glamorous too — chairs, mirrors, stairways, gardens. Beautiful lighting and design does produce heightened emotions. It also enhances the story because the audience is being told what to focus on through what is treated with the best shots and lighting.
Lisa Marie Basile: The Love Witch is interesting in that it can be (I think, very wrongfully) passed off as anti-feminist when viewed under the wrong lens. Obviously, this film is all about subversion. With so many people talking about the Bechdel test (which this film passes!) for film, how do you feel about it?
Anna Biller: If think if people are seeing the film as anti-feminist, then they’re either confused about what feminism is or they’re not seeing the film at all. The entire content of the film is about a woman’s life being destroyed by being made into a sex object within a patriarchal system.
Lisa Marie Basile: I know you asked people to stop saying the acting is 'wooden' and you asked people not to assume it takes place in the 1960s. Can you tell me a little about the way you approached the film and why you made these choices?
Anna Biller: I made the choices I made for the same reason anyone makes choices for their film: because they fit the story I was trying to tell, and because of my own sense of aesthetics. As for the acting, it’s good acting done by trained classical actors.
Lisa Marie Basile: What do you think of people who criticize the film for being filled with beautiful girls for the most part? From feminists I know who loved and saw the film, a few (of course, not all) said that was one element that did bug them.
I'm wondering if that was more than a typical silverscreen-casting call — and more an explicit attempt at capturing some of that narcissism and female sexual power you're exploring?
What’s wrong with beautiful girls? What’s antifeminist about that, unless feminists actually buy into a sexist stereotype that only unattractive women can be feminists? That’s really shocking to me. I love to look at beautiful women on the screen. It has nothing to do with catering to what men like and want to see. Also, a very high proportion of working actresses are attractive. Many directors don’t have their beautiful actresses wear a lot of makeup or dress in cute clothes. Does that make those directors more feminist-friendly?
Shouldn’t people look at the text, and not at what the actresses look like and what they are wearing? What kinds of messages are women sending when they become obsessed about the appearance of women on the screen rather than focusing on the complex characters they are portraying? Also, what do these objectors think of the character of Trish? She is Elaine’s foil, a woman who does not base her value on her looks. And Elaine, the one who is obsessed with her looks, ends up being the one whose values are questioned in the movie. That’s why I say that if people think the film is anti-feminist, they’re not following the narrative.
But as I said earlier, I do love glamour, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I am deliberately trying to bring back dignity and pleasure to glamour, which is something that used to give women a great deal of pleasure before they started having to feel guilty about it. It’s actually a political stance. It’s about not being ashamed of being a woman and looking feminine, and about not privileging a male or genderless mode of self-presentation as being better. It’s not better or worse, it’s just another choice. If we are truly liberated, we should be able to take pleasure in any mode of self-presentation we choose, and we should absolutely not have to apologize or feel ashamed for being born with a good bone structure!
But as I said earlier, I do love glamour, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I am deliberately trying to bring back dignity and pleasure to glamour, which is something that used to give women a great deal of pleasure before they started having to feel guilty about it.
Lisa Marie Basile: I recently wrote an article about witchcraft as self-care — and part of that reasoning is that people are finally coming to understand that it's not just hocus-pocus, that it's not only real, but that there can be a feminist, empowering element to it. Your film explores both ends of the spectrum. The magic and feminism — the tampon soaked in urine and the body as power, but also the desperate need for male approval and love through the Craft. How did you approach that binary, and why was it important to you to explore both?
Elaine’s need for respect and love is a primary human need, especially for people who were raised without love. What I have found is that women often turn to witchcraft to find personal power, which is how Elaine came to it. But she also came to it out of desperation, which is always a bad way to approach any kind of religion.
Lisa Marie Basile: I felt that The Love Witch had this Lynchian quality — there were plenty of scenes that had an eerie, uncomfortable undertone. A disconnect from reality, perhaps? It slowly creeps under your skin. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Lynch and your filmmaking inspirations in general.
I’m actually interested in reality much more than I’m interested in disconnecting from it, although I like to construct an alternate reality with cinema. I’ve often been compared to Lynch, but I think he is trying to point out the weird in the everyday, and I am more trying to point out the mythic in the everyday. But I do agree that my work can be eerie.
I think the eeriness comes from the mix of strong, sincere emotions and heightened visuals, along with a slight sense of detachment from the whole thing. When I’m making a film I almost feel as if I am dead, I am that much in a trance. So I am looking down at the whole thing from a great height as if it has nothing to do with me, and I am just a spirit medium teasing the film out of the ether, but it’s based on all the things that happened to me in life and mediated magically through the media of script, acting, lighting, film, and editing.
Elaine’s need for respect and love is a primary human need, especially for people who were raised without love.
Lisa Marie Basile: I respect so much that your film explains witchcraft as a way to manifest intent. I know you studied witchcraft when making this film. Have you thought that previous films showcased witchcraft incorrectly, as something different?
Witchcraft as a way of manifesting intent comes from modern Wicca and from Aleister Crowley. It’s how real practicing witches think of witchcraft. I’ve rarely seen any film that deals with witchcraft the way it’s actually practiced, except maybe the original version of The Wicker Man.
Lisa Marie Basile: [READERS BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT]
When Elaine kills Griff (and when Wayne dies), it is unclear to me how Elaine feels. I struggle with this a lot — and I've watched it a few times. Maybe that's because Elaine herself is both dark and light ("you have two selves," says Wayne). Is she capable of feeling loss? Is she mourning these men's imperfections and rejections?
I think that when Wayne dies, she is very sad. But it’s not the type of sad one usually feels when mourning a death; it’s more the type of sad when you’ve broken your new toy, and now you are bored because you have nothing to play with. So it’s “narcissistic sad.” When Griff dies she’s not sad — she’s more relieved. Now she’s done away with the obstacle of the real man who argues with her and refuses to tell her he loves her, and she instead has the imaginary man, who says he loves her, marries her, and carries her away on a white unicorn. So at this point she has completely lost touch with reality.
Lisa Marie Basile: I've heard a lot of comparisons between Elaine and Lana Del Rey, which is interesting (I LOVE them both) — and between The Love Witch and Lana Del Rey's sensibilities. What do you think?
I don’t know. They’re both pretty girls with long brown hair who dress ‘60s. It’s a pretty superficial comparison. I like Lana’s look and aesthetic a lot, though.
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