❉ An appreciation of Anna Biller’s stunning, beguiling, cult movie.
When British film director Anthony Simmons died at the age 93 last year he left behind a small but meticulous filmography arguably comprising some of the best work ever put to film about Londoners including Black Joy, Britain’s only Blaxploitation film and criminally underrated Optimists of Nine Elms starring Peter Sellers. His fourth feature 1965’s Four In The Morning featuring a fledgling Judi Dench charted the path of two women (including one deceased and found washed up in Canary Wharf) linked by a camel hair coat. Shot in stunning black and white and inspired by French existentialism it bears zero physical resemblance to the delectable color saturated charms of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch however Simmons posed similar questions: how much of a woman’s own mind and sanity will she sacrifice for a man’s love and affection? When she stands up for herself what will the result be? Will she survive?
The Love Witch is about and for all women who’ve tirelessly created a relationship with a partner and found failure after failure; abuse after abuse and abandonment after abandonment. The fact that the lead actress is exquisitely beautiful is not that remarkable because if we’ve learned anything from the common ground environment of the internet it’s that beauty doesn’t buy happiness much less respect. Lead character Elaine Parks (played by the talented Samantha Robinson) decides that she’s had enough of abuse and she takes charge by using witchcraft as a vengeful talisman in attempt to be loved. Her powers prove exciting but tragic. Her own drive to make her romantic life “work” and to create love ultimately destroys her but not until she’s charmed us. Not since Malcolm McDowell as Alex Delarge in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has a nefarious character been so entertaining and so light on their feet!
Apart from being an excellent film, the overwhelming critical and international success of The Love Witch is in turn a cultural watershed where, despite the openly anti-female government of the 45th president of United States, women have a world class director that is speaking to their lives, fantasies and dreams. It feels like art just got great again for the first time Pulp Fiction was released. And as Pulp Fiction gave the world a new perspective on film by eschewing the mainstream cinemaplex straight jacket, aspects of The Love Witch are doing much the same thing for not only filmmaking but romantic relationships. For instance it’s fascinating to see the huge variance in cis straight male reaction to the film. I’ve seen men write it off as “camp” while others have reflexively brought up the beauty of their own partners in a competitive way with Samantha Robinson that says perhaps they were little bit more attracted to her performance than they wanted to admit.
Eye candy aside, Anna Biller’s work can offer the person who enjoys ceaselessly deconstructing film that joy but ultimately there will still be more questions than answers. Her stories like all talented authors are very simple and very human. To dissect, to try to label her work in any clear genre isn’t easy. One impressively mammoth and intricate review of The Love Witch actually read like a City lights, North Beach San Francisco Beatnik shouting out different film and sex references. This is the first artist of her generation who has been able to creatively look back at the past, without needing the irony of commercialism (e.g.: Top 20, AOR, catchy references, obscure trivia) to achieve this. Most of us love Tarantino and Sofia Coppola’s snappy references and soundtracks but Anna doesn’t need that safety net. It also makes her work much more original because she’s creating her own irony. When you look through Anna Biller’s lens you’re looking at an alternate universe where the artist is guiding you, not the usual comforting pop-culture markers.
And it took a female director to finally make a man, to quote Raquel Welch, “turn around” aka get his naughty bits out…all the way out. It’s doubtful that any director apart from Ken Russell has featured such non chalant male full frontal nudity in their films. This makes complete sense in human way; a woman’s gaze finally counts too. And like Russell, Anna deals with women’s pleasure so you are seeing missionary position and eye to eye, clitoral contact love making that women can rarely seem to find in straight porn (much less mainstream cinema) in this era. Anna has been vocal about saying that she wants to bring back glamour in her films proving in her work all the way back to her short film A Visit From The Incubus that while radical feminism may be appear binary it can have more than one style.
There was of course little feminism about in the early 1960s world when Anthony Simmons made Four In The Morning. As his film closes the two women with no connection apart from the same coat must face again their dreary London life lives. Having stood up to the abusive men in their lives little will change and they’ll continue to shuffle through life unloved and uncertain. Throughout the film we fear the cadaver found on the shore would turn out to be one of those women but clearly the deceased and unclaimed was another entity altogether. As the film ends with her body being stripped, washed and tagged cruelly and impersonally on a crude coroner’s boat, she becomes a metaphor of the fact that women through subservience may become the living dead themselves simply to function. Stripped by men of their dreams, energies and in some cases their lives. The Love Witch is a film demanding answers in beautiful Kelig lit 35 mm as to why so little has changed.
❉ Click here for a Q & A with Anna Biller.
❉ ‘The Love Witch’ was released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray by ICON Entertainment, 13 March 2017.