Thursday 20 July 2017

The Love Witch

Witch Slap

The Love Witch
USA 2016 Directed by Anna Biller
Oscilloscope/Fright Fest Blu Ray Zone B

Okay, so this is a film I had to forego seeing at a very limited screening on the weekend of its official release in the UK because it was a) in a fairly small screen, b) only had something like bean bags for seats (yeah, I know that sounds comfy but I’m old... not sure my knees would thank me) and c) while I very nearly didn’t let this detract from me seeing the only showing it had, the poster advertising it also said it was a ‘feminist’ screening... and I really didn’t want to be sitting there in a room full of what many victims of modern culture seem to feel feminism has become (actually, people used to tell me I was one but I only ever wanted equality and so I never really looked into it that much). I felt like I would be like too much of an annoying outsider to what felt, although not actually stated, like it would be a ‘girls only’ showing. I want an easy life. I was still contemplating the idea, though, because this movie was getting some good word of mouth on Twitter. However, I then found out that, two days after the screening, the Blu Ray was being released for less than the price of what the cinema ticket would have cost me... so in the end I just pre-ordered that as a more than viable alternative.

Now, I’ve seen a fair bit of positive and negative criticism about this movie and, frankly, if somebody can generate that amount of split in an audience then their film is probably going to be worth seeing whether you actually like it or not, is my view. I have to say that, for the most part, I really liked this movie, the first I’ve seen by director Anna Biller (although I have Viva in the ‘to watch’ pile*) and I had a big smile on my face throughout most of the running time... well, apart from when I spilled the ginger beer but that in itself says a lot for the movie because I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen long enough to ensure the table I put my drink on was actually there (and, yeah, I quite spectacularly missed it, thanks very much... lots of cleaning up to do).

So the film starts off setting a tone, which it sticks with throughout, which is of the kind of retro fake Hollywood artificiality and hyper-realism you might see in a movie made 40 years or more ago. A lot of people have mentioned that this harkens back to the old AIP style pictures made by Roger Corman and the rest of the bunch back in the sixties but it’s something which has been denied by the director and I think, amazingly, I can actually agree with her on this one. I can understand the tendency to compare them but I think any similarity is generated purely by the director, cinematographer etc on those period pieces using a common visual style with a wealth of films made contemporary to them... so any similarity seems to be more a coincidence of era, if you see what I mean.

Biller herself has likened the style to 1970s Hollywood and I can certainly see this but, for me, the experience was a little more like watching those late 1950s to mid 1970s TV sit coms of cheery times gone by. Sure the visual style is quite focussed and unwavering, especially on the colour front, but the acting and make up is also strongly stylised (almost stilted... but I don’t mean that in a negative way) and this all builds on the wholesome and clean image which, in this case, gives us a sense of expectation from the material so that Biller is able to pull the rug from under us at certain moments. You don’t watch an episode of Bewitched or I Dream Of Jeannie or The Brady Bunch, for example, and expect the lead characters to be killing and burying the other characters or pissing into witch bottles.

The Love Witch starts off strongly with us following the thoughts of the title character, Elaine (played beautifully by Samantha Robinson), as she rides into a new town and stops outside her new apartment building... which looks like something out of The Addams Family. Right away the artificiality of the environment and ersatz tone of the movie are spelled out in capital letters and underlined in dayglow paint as the shots of Elaine from inside her car are all done with old Hollywood style rear projection. The last two modern era films I saw to use this effect to comment on the nature of the ‘filmed reality’ we are seeing were Peyton Reed’s Down With Love and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and as soon as you see this technique used in a modern setting, it immediately gives the message that we are being included in a hyper-real world which has its tongue wedged, fairly firmly, in its cheek. At least, that’s the way I saw it and certainly the dialogue and acting style seems to bear this out.

Indeed, the film further explores the nature of its own artifice by having a few shots thrown in of Elaine putting the finishing touches on some paintings... which is her hobby when not making witchy things for the witchcraft shop in town. At no time does there ever seem to be any wet paint on her brush nor actual painting going on at all as she goes through the motions for the sake of the character... which I thought was a neat kinda detail to exploit the artificiality of this work in comparison to what movie-making has become now in mainstream cinema. So that was cool.

Another thing which immediately hits one in the forebrain is the amazing sense of colour coordination displayed in the very cleanly designed shots. When Elaine is wearing red, her suitcases are the same colour and tone etc. This is further emphasised fairly quickly when Elaine and her new friend Trish, played by Laura Waddell, got to a restaurant and all of the people in it are dressed in the same pink, lavender and whites of the rest of the interior decor. It’s lucky Elaine and Trish both decided to freshen up to the exact same colour coding as everyone else in this scene, that’s for sure. 😍 There’s also a lovely switch around later on when Trish is in mourning and everyone in the restaurant, including Elaine, is dressed in pretty much the same colours as before but Trish sticks out like a sore thumb due to her black atire.

It’s in the first restaurant scene that we get the tone of the story when Elaine and Trish are discussing love and Elaine explains... “Men are like children, they're very easy to please. As long as we give them what they want.” The whole tone of this seems to be that men are really stupid when it comes to love and the male characters in the movie do bear that out, wearing their 1950s dumb male chauvinist influences quite flamboyantly on their pseudo-celluloidal sleeves. I have to admit, I was a little offended by this attitude when it turned out that almost every male character is somewhat reduced to this particularly easy stereotype until I realised that the majority of the women in this film were all equally as stupid in terms of their rigid bondage to a specific set of attitudes and coding and I realised this was all just part of the fun, in some ways.

While I do think the director is an amazing artist on the strength of this one film I was also, for a short while, thinking she was an absolute genius when it came to the musical scoring too. I had the preconceived idea from looking at the IMDB that Biller had written the entire score by herself and all through the movie I was thinking how amazingly close she was getting to the orchestration of certain composers and scores at various points. For instance, there’s a sequence when one of the male characters has a flashback and the music is almost what Ennio Morricone might have written for Edda D’Ell Orso to hypnotically warble against in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. And the music from the first love scene in the film sounded like it’s dropped straight out of the same composer’s score for Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin. As I discovered the day after, though, Biller just wrote a few of the diegetic songs for the movie and the rest of the score is needle dropped in from various scores and movies exactly like the ones I’d almost been identifying throughout the movie... including Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, as it happens. Although, if you’re trying to get away from comparisons to the kinds of movies AIP were putting out in the 1960s, I would have thought going for Italian exploitation stuff exactly like the ones AIP used to distribute in America at the time (sometimes rescored by composers like Les Baxter) would have been something she would have steered clear of. However, you can’t help but applaud her for the musical choices as they also give the film another ‘larger than life’ veneer to help carry the illusion of retro-fakery which seems, at least to these eyes, to be the order of the day as far as this little gem is concerned.

There were a couple of things which niggled me on this one, though. There was an extended medieval reenactment thing happening where two of the characters in the film are ‘fake married’ and I felt those particular scenes did overstay their welcome a little. Also, I found the last third of the movie a little jumpy, particularly in Elaine’s attitude to one of her old, male witch ‘friends’ which seemed to suddenly soften towards the end. Not quite sure why that happened, to be honest. Also, Elaine is very forward in her chat up lines and inducements to the various men in the movie she is trying to get together with... spelling things out for the various stupid men to get things moving quicker (I can relate... I am a stupid man and I apparently don’t often realise when a lady shows interest, it has to be said). This is all fine and a very funny element of the film but my problem with it comes when she starts maybe spelling things out a little too much for the actual audience too. Using close up inserts and flashbacks, for example, to remind us of something which we really weren’t likely to have forgotten in the short time since we’d seen those scenes play out chronologically in the main body of the film. I kinda felt like the movie was insulting what little intelligence I had in such scenes although, to be fair to Biller, it’s probably exactly how those old Hollywood movies and TV shows would have treated their audience back in the day so... maybe there’s some justification for this. So that’s possibly my problem.

All in all, I found The Love Witch to be a charming, delightful surprise of a movie with some very strong performances by the likes of the aforementioned Samantha Robinson and some great turns by Gian Keys, Laura Waddell and Jeffrey Vincent Parise. Absolutely brilliant and colourful mise en scene, mostly good editing and some great sound design and music choices had me grinning from ear to ear throughout the majority of the film and this is definitely a top recommendation from me if you want to see something a little different to a lot of the stuff that’s out their currently. Take a ride with The Love Witch for a good time.

*Having now seen Viva since writing this review, I can confirm I had an even better time with that movie than with The Love Witch so... review to follow sometime soon.

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