So many image-conscious movies today use their visual acumen to knock you back in your seat, but mere seconds into Anna Biller’s candy-colored retro-horror film “The Love Witch,” you realize this movie is an ornate portal with a beckoning, bejeweled finger, and you’re as helpless as one of its titular seducer’s hexed-and-sexed victims. You want to step inside its strikingly textured Technicolor funscape and give yourself over — maybe across that plush, crimson sofa, or on that impossibly green grass, or inside those golden silk sheets.
Once you’ve crossed the threshold, though, you find something shrewder: a tables-turning investigation of gender roles and female gratification, played out with humor, weirdness, prickly intelligence and even melancholy.
Biller, a feminist indie filmmaker and genre aficionado filtered through an old-school movie sensualist, has crafted one of the year’s most delectable curiosities, and the term “crafted” is not used lightly: she wrote, produced, and directed, as well as made the costumes, designed the sets, created a few paintings for it, and wrote much of its music. That she didn’t act in it as well doesn’t mean she couldn’t have: she starred in her last multi-hyphenate movie, 2007’s cult curio about suburban LA swingers, “Viva.”
Instead, in her one-of-a-kind sophomore feature, she pulls a mesmerizing star turn from newcomer Samantha Robinson, a heart-faced knockout who combines narcissistic eroticism and wit as Elaine, a love-mad serial killer around whom the ’60s-era Hammer filmmakers would have built whole gothic worlds.
Having disposed of an ex-husband who had the temerity to leave her (he’s shown falling to the floor in flashback shots), Elaine heads up the Pacific coast in her cherry-hued convertible, coquettishly narrating her romantic woes (“they say I’m cured now”), a rear-projection landscape behind her as if she were a fleeing Hitchcock heroine. Taking up in a small town at a friend’s empty pad (the Tarot-inspired apartment set is spectacular), she sets up a spell-casting nook with ancient books, herbs, and beakers of colored liquids, all the better to kickstart true love in a man with a helpful pinch of hallucinogenic magic. As she explains to her married, mousy landlord (Laura Waddell) over high tea in a posh,
Elaine conveniently leaves out the hocus-pocus part, which she uses immediately on leering, bearded college professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), who can’t believe his good fortune that a raven-haired beauty on a park bench wants to drive off with him for a night of home-cooked steaks, coddling (“Poor, poor baby” being Elaine’s favorite cooing small talk), and unadulterated passion. That Elaine’s potion also makes him a crying, emotional wreck the next morning — then inconveniently dead — is a nuisance, to be sure.
It’s also a hilarious riff on gender-crossed sexual wires. “I thought I’d found a real man!” she complains. But it also implies that this sultry, mad sorceress may not be fully aware she’s in an illusion-fueled spiral of tempt-and-destroy, which is what gives “The Love Witch” its slyly feminist, revenge-flick wink: What if dissatisfied women had their own M.O. for using and discarding their lovers?
Filmed in ravishing 35mm (the best way to see it projected) and unafraid to use blast-from-the-past effects like kaleidoscope lenses and rainbow flares on the edge of the frame, “The Love Witch” is, as realized by Biller and cinematographer M. David Mullen (“Jennifer’s Body”), an eye-popping feast. It’s one of those movies that gives the sense of having emerged straight from its director’s imagination. Biller has a fertile one, indeed, mixing up the hotly lit, saturated palette of glamour vehicles past — syrupy reds, diaphanous fabrics, winelight — with a nudgingly campy, gestural acting style that allows for just enough emotional range from the actors, while producing the occasional cathartic giggle from moviegoers.
Sometimes the detours defy easy description, as in a Renaissance faire mock wedding featuring newly smitten Elaine and a square-jawed detective (Gian Keys) “investigating” her for Wayne’s murder — she’s too hot to be the culprit, right? — that evokes the dreamy quality of Jacques Demy musical playgrounds. Other moments play like delicious shout-outs to sexy siren cinema: close-ups of Robinson giving sinister double takes that recall Gene Tierney’s creepy faraway looks in “Leave Her to Heaven,” and coven rituals with altars and nudist circles straight out of taste-challenged midnight movies. And in nearly every scene, you’ll scan the frame as if you were in the sweetest of vintage markets, or the freakiest of occult shops.
It’s all both overwhelming and pitch perfect, if not, at a deliberately paced two hours, everyone’s cup of mystical juju. But for fans of exquisitely conjured nostalgia, dosed liberally with a modern attitude, “The Love Witch” is a velvety melodramatic treat, and a real calling card for Biller’s playfully immersive gifts. Bring your gaze, whatever your gender.