Despite living in the Age of Everything Being on Demand, there are some movies that are just impossible to find. For the longest while, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch was impossible to find in Australia. The trailer presented this beautiful, absolutely luscious palatte based on 1950s-60s movies and promised a plot that seemed absolutely bonkers. Expectations raised.
Having been pointed in the direction of the streaming services of various cinemas, I finally got an opportunity to see it. And expectations met! Every part of it is amazing and easily one of my favourite movies. I was also pointed in the direction of Biller’s short movies on Vimeo, leading to a watch of her earlier A Visit from the Incubus.
Biller plays with genre in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen other directors handle for a while. There’s a fine line between producing a movie in the style of a particular genre and producing a parody of that genre. At no point does The Love Witch feel like a parody, despite being comedic.
You get a real sense that Biller loves the movie style that she’s referencing. Each shot is warm, the lighting and angles precisely match films of the era, and the acting style gently evocative of the strange mid-Atlantic theatricality that dominated the genre.
But it’s not just for the sake of the aesthetic. Instead, the genre is used to shape and challenge the interpretation of character’s behaviours. Elaine, the main character, is a witch and appears to use magic to get what she wants. Specifically, she wants a lover. Her thesis statement–that women need to satisfy men’s desires if they want to have a successful relationship–sounds abhorrent to modern audiences but is clothed in the garb of the 1950s and 1960s. The question is simple: is Elaine being ironic when she expresses her desire for what a lot of us consider to be a regressive norm? Elaine isn’t going to sit back and wait for a man, she is going to use her skills in magic to make it happen. The result is a deeply unsettling horror: she wants something that we think she shouldn’t want, and achieves it in a way that we think she shouldn’t achieve it.
This would be fascinating enough as a movie, except it pushes the audience to critique those norms. Perhaps we might disagree with her approach, but other characters–who have otherwise been voices of more progressive moral norms within the movie–try to emulate her. Characters–particularly the women in the movie–get caught between modern ideals of how they think they should behave and past ideals of how they think they should behave.
Ultimately, the movie reveals its hand: how are we to read Elaine? The aesthetic of the film has pushed an ironic reading of her wants and desires, and moral voices within the film present her as an antiheroic figure… but when the cards are on the table in the final scenes, it becomes less and less certain how to interpret the behaviour of the characters. It is fascinating and provocative.
The earlier short movie, A Visit from the Incubus, has less time to unpack the issues it raises but luxuriates in ambiguities about how to interpret the characters. The film is in the style of a musical Western, complete with cowboys in pristine theatre condition. Lucy–also played by Biller–is a woman who experiences unwanted sexual attention from a vaudevillian incubus.
Unlike other movies and short films about incubi and succubi, there is nothing erotic about the encounter with the demon. The demon is a manifestly ridiculous creature. Lucy expresses frustration and annoyance about the incubus in terms that are more evocative of dealing with a household pest rather than dealing with a supernatural force. Her neighbour, Madeleine, similarly had previous problems with an incubus. She was happy and carefree, then she encountered the incubus’ unwanted attention. Madeleine responded to the attention of the incubus by enduring it until it went away and turned its attention elsewhere. Lucy, on the other hand, has a moment of feeling shame and disgust, but then responds by deciding she wants to engage her sexuality on expressly her own terms: through satisfying her dream of becoming a singer in a bar.
Here, the ridiculous nature of the incubus being a gross, unwanted force within her life is very clear; what is more challenging is how to understand Lucy’s reaction and, through it, Biller’s understanding of the relationship between a person and their sexuality. Is Madeleine’s approach of merely enduring it until it passes the cause of Madeleine’s unhappy state; is Lucy happier getting sexual attention on her own terms? It’s a short movie, so we don’t know.
Both movies show exactly how powerful genre can be for shaping intuitions and interpretations without falling into mere parody. If anything, Biller raises questions about why we don’t play with genre more in contemporary movies, or think more carefully about the aesthetics of how we present ideas.