When most people think of The Love Witch (2016), the first things that come to mind are visual. They might remember a colorful costume or a stunning set that were designed by the film’s writer-director-producer-editor-songwriter/arranger Anna Biller, or an impeccably framed close-up of its unforgettable protagonist, Elaine (perfectly played by Samantha Robinson). But while I enjoy those aspects of the film, they’re not my favorite things about it. Instead, what I most love about The Love Witch is how Biller uses voiceover. She employs it to enable Elaine to articulate her desires and remember her dark past, explore interesting facets of her character, as well as allow the film as a whole to grapple with its ideas about what men and women want from each other. That juxtaposition between an exterior world of visual delights and an inner world of darkness driven by pain elevates this film from what could have been an interesting curio into a brilliant tragedy.
The Love Witch is about Elaine, a young witch who moves to a small town in northern California after the mysterious “death” of her husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). Once there, she starts using magical concoctions and things she was taught in a Wiccan coven to get men to fall in love with her. But her magic has lethal side effects, which lead her to get investigated by a cop named Griff (Gian Keys), whom Elaine comes to believe will be her true love. But a different fate from a traditionally happy ending awaits Elaine and Griff.
The Love Witch starts its pattern of juxtaposing visual beauty with inner pain during an early scene of Elaine driving in northern California. The first shot of her, in which she is wearing a bright red dress and is framed against a background created by rear projection photography (a technique often used in Hollywood movies of the first half of the 20th century), establishes the film’s colorful visual style and love of artifice. But it establishes its thematic content soon after that not through idiosyncratic imagery, but through its use of voiceover. As she drives, Elaine thinks about how she had a “nervous breakdown” after Jerry left her, and that her therapist said she was abused. This monologue stands in contrast to Elaine’s bright clothing and sparkly turquoise eye makeup, and foreshadows all of the ways that Elaine’s voiceover will allow us to learn more about her.
In his conversations with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder noted that voiceovers should never describe what is happening but should instead “add to what [you] are seeing.” Part of why Biller’s use of voiceover is so successful is that she follows that advice, primarily by making Elaine’s voiceover a catalog of her thoughts that we would not otherwise know. She often puts on a persona of being the “ultimate male fantasy” when seducing men, but she is able to be more truthful with herself in her voiceover. It is there that she can be honest about her opinions of her lovers, and even scathing when they don’t live up to her expectations. She also articulates positive thoughts about how she thinks it is beautiful that women menstruate, which is the type of thing she could never say to her prospective husband. But at the same time, Elaine suffers from intrusive thoughts in her voiceover which reveal her traumatic past. In one of the more haunting scenes, Elaine rubs “witches’ flying ointment” on her legs as she remembers her father verbally abusing her. Biller films Elaine’s legs with soft light on them, which accentuates their beauty and makes them stand out even more from the harsh words that her father used to berate her. The presence of the ointment even hints at Elaine’s desire to fly away from her past and leave it behind, in contrast to the voiceover which represents the abuse which has helped shape her into who she has become. That heartbreaking scene is one of the film’s best uses of voiceover to depict the pain behind Elaine’s perfectly constructed mask of pleasant femininity which she tries to use to find the romantic love that she craves.
The film’s use of voiceover also allows Robinson to show off different dimensions of Elaine’s character. For example, when she is burying her former lover Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), Elaine thinks less about him and more about her former cat, Graymalkin. I’ve read some critics describe this scene as comedic, but I find it to be more moving than anything else. As Elaine describes him in voiceover, a tone of pure joy and affection comes into her voice that we never hear her use to describe her male lovers or female friends. It’s clear that she truly loved him, and it is with an appropriately sad tone (the saddest and most forlorn she sounds in the whole film) that she notes that the deceased Graymalkin “was my best friend.” It’s a tender moment that allows us to get a glimpse at a more sweet and vulnerable side of Elaine.
Biller’s use of voiceover in The Love Witch also allows her to set Elaine’s expectations of what romantic love from a man will be against the reality of what the men she meets really want. The most direct instance of this comes after Elaine and Griff have a mock wedding at a midsummer fair that is organized by Elaine’s coven. The fair itself has beautiful costumes that were all designed and made by Biller as well as a great set that was influenced by the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970). As Elaine and Griff happily eat, she thinks in voiceover about how the little details of a man become what she loves the most about him as she gets to know him more. This is followed by Griff thinking about how he loves a woman less as he gets to know her better. It’s clear from their dueling voiceovers that they have entirely different ideas about what they want out of a romantic relationship. The bleakness of their misunderstanding (particularly Griff’s rejection of the concept of love that will lead to the downfall of their relationship) is all the more effective when set against the backdrop of the colorful midsummer fair environment.
The Love Witch should be thought of as more than just a film with an original and colorful visual style. While it has beautiful cinematography and excellent costumes, it deserves to be remembered as a brilliant and brutal portrait of a woman who tries and fails to find love, with an excellent use of voiceover that provides you with a direct look into its protagonist’s mind. That combination of beautiful visuals with a heartrending use of voiceover to accentuate the darkness of its thematic material is what keeps me coming back to it, and it’s one that more people should experience.
The Love Witch will be screened at IU Cinema on February 10 as part of the Not-Quite Midnights series.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.