Monday, November 7, 2016

Anna Biller's THE LOVE WITCH: a bizarre original that takes us back a half-century

What an amazing "look" has the new indie pic, THE LOVE WITCH, written, directed and just-about-everything-elsed by Anna Biller. From the first frame onwards, we're transported back into the 1960s and 70s via the appearance of the men and women here -- their hair styles, make-up, beards, cars, clothing and more -- it is all so redolent of that creamy, voluptuous time period, right down to the copious full-frontal on display. The acting especially, seems to come right out of of the glossy, soft-core porn films of the day. Radley Metzger would plotz, then kvell!

Over the past couple of decades, Ms Biller (shown at right) has been building a reputation, though this is the first of her films that TrustMovies has actually seen. It's bizarre but also, in its way, memorable, so it may be a good place to begin. Set a half-century ago, it details the connivings of a young woman who doubles as a "witch" (this sort of thing was a tad more de rigeur back in that day) and is moving from one California town to another, after the demise of her unfaithful hubby. Our gal, it seems, has major love problems.

From the movie's outset, as its "heroine," Elaine (a knockout non-performance from the gorgeous Samantha Robinson, above), unveils to us via voiceover her recent love history, this character comes across as somewhat narcissistic and irresponsible. You think so? Just wait. The dialog, plotting and performances all seem equally strange and "off," and yet so often drop-dead-gorgeous is the movie -- that Victorian era tea room (shown above) is just one of the visual wonders here -- that any real film buff won't want to look away.

From man (Jeffrey Vincent Parisse, above) to man (a very funny Robert Seeley) to man (the fellow who seems to be most perfect, played by Gian Keys, shown below, leading that horse), our Elaine hypnotizes, seduces and then disposes of the poor guys who cross her path and always fail to deliver on her expectations. How and why this keeps happening provide the meat of the movie.

The film is full of philosophizing, and if most of the philosophy here struck me as second-hand, at best, it is often accompanied by visuals that are either ravishing or hilarious. This is most apparent in a scene in a burlesque night club in which a warlock and his witches, below, sit at a table having a "deep" discussion about men and their needs, as the burlesque dancer simultaneous struts her stuff, serving the men in the audience with their immediate needs. My spouse and I have not laughed this hard or this long in some time.

The movie takes us back to a time of modern-day apothecaries and Renaissance Fairs and to a world of unhappy husbands and wives and police departments in which cops get into fist fights over a snide remark about a girlfriend. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, with no hint of camp or condescension. Which of course turns the whole thing into a kind of wonderfully high-toned camp.

The movie runs two full hours and yet -- shockingly enough -- it does not seems a minute too long. It is too much oddball fun: If, that is, you can manage to get onto its wave-length.

I do have one big quibble. Toward the end of the film, we're see a cell phone in use, and then suddenly a modern-day automobile. This cannot be an unintentional continuity problem, as Ms Biller has exercised way too much control over everything for that to happen. Is the filmmaker trying to bring us into the present day in order to show us that nothing much has changed over time? If so, this was probably not the best way to do it.

Otherwise, The Love Witch is an unusual treat for those of us old enough to remember the good old movie-going days -- or young enough to want to know what they might have been like. After viewing the movie, I went to the press kit provided and eagerly perused it all. Turns out that Ms Biller really did have a huge amount of control, extending to everything from writing and direction to performances, sets, costumes and more. She tells us that she worked with her lead actress for a full year to nail down character and such.

This surely has to do with the unusual performance given by Ms Robinson, which may remind you, in its almost complete lack of anything approaching real "behavior," of the films of Robert Bresson. Here -- and in certain other performances, too -- behavior seems to have been trounced in favor of the kind of non-acting that will better get across the points Biller want to make. This ends up being something of a trade-off, really. But it does result in a movie that rather stands alone. Think of it as Besson meets Metzger.

The Love Witch, from Oscilloscope Films, opens this Friday, November 11, in California (in Los Angeles you can see it at Landmark's NuArt and elsewhere around the state) and in Texas (at the Drafthouse in Austin). Next Friday, October 18, it will expand all around the country. In New York, see it at the new Drafthouse in Brooklyn; here in South Florida it will play the Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters. 

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