James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
This week’s column is focused on “The Love Witch,” which opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, November 11, and in New York on November 18.
James: Pretty freaky, right bruh?
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Semaj: Um, not really. More kitschy than scary.
James: I didn’t say scary, I said freaky, as in that witch is a freak!
Semaj: Why do you say that? Because she likes to bone?
James: Well, I just mean, that’s her whole reason for being, finding men to seduce with her powers and screw.
Semaj: And. . .? Why does that make her freaky? If she were a man you’d say he was a stud. Like Casanova.
James: I mean, I know, I guess I’m being a little sexist. Or should I say a little Trump-ish.
Semaj: Um, yeah, like that kind of thinking went out of fashion years ago, back when America was “Great,” whenever that was.
James: You’re getting a little political over there, Semaj.
Semaj: This is a political film, out at a political time, when the president-elect is heard talking about grabbing women by their private parts and getting away with it because he’s a celebrity.
Anyway, the Love Witch decides to turn the tables on men like the not-to-be-named president-elect. The movie has a throwback feel: the way the characters dress, their hairstyles, the way they behave all make it feel like it’s a genre film from the seventies.
James: Even though there are some modern cars and things around that betray the period.
Semaj: Yeah. It’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be a period movie that takes place in the seventies, or if they’re characters in 2016 that live in niche communities that take on tropes from the seventies.
Semaj: Yeah, but more on the stylized, witchy side of things. This movie is highly stylized in its look and the way that the actors play their characters. There is a stilted quality to the way they deliver dialogue.
James: Maybe that’s because of the dialogue is not very naturalistic. The whole thing reminded me of “I Dream of Genie” or “Bewitched” — the way it looked and the way they interacted with each other.
Semaj: Yeah, because those old shows were shot on film, and this movie has an old film look. And there is a conscious choice to make everyone talk and act in strange ways, almost like they were in a cartoon.
James: It reminded me of the acting in “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Semaj: Or “The Greasy Strangler?”
James: That’s one of my top films of the year.
Semaj: I know, dude! But I don’t think “The Love Witch” is as silly as those movies. Although you’re right, the performances have a kind of purposeful dryness to them.
James: As if they were trying to reference those old sexist shows and films, while turning the sexism on its head because now the woman of the film is going out and grabbing the men by their private parts, metaphorically speaking — you know, with her magic love potions and all.
Semaj: Yes! The movie even raises the exact double standard that you were hung up on earlier.
James: It does?
Semaj: Well, in a roundabout way. When she’s picking up that university professor, she asks him what he teaches, and he says English and French literature with a focus on the 18th century. And she says, in a coy/flirtatious way, that he must read Casanova.
James: Sorry, I’m a little lost again. That’s critiquing the double standards between men and women?
Semaj: Look a little deeper, my friend. This is a movie about a woman trying to find meaning in her life. She has been unfortunate in love (her husband died mysteriously, probably poisoned) and the people she gets involved with have a tendency to end up dead, one way or another. She says she wants love more than anything, but to her, love is a relationship with someone who worships her. She is the female Casanova.
James: Okay, slow down. We forgot to give a sense of what this movie is about.
Semaj: Yes, but the plot is so simple. This is a movie that is very much about how things are said, rather than what is said.
James: But you just got finished telling me about how this was a proto-feminist movie, and that she was openly challenging male sybarites, first by evoking Casanova, and then by seducing and screwing every man she’s interested in.
Semaj: “Sybarite”…wow, what a vocabulary.
James: Yeah, yeah, it means someone who is self-indulgent in his pursuit of sensuous luxury.
Semaj: Well, that’s exactly what she is. She’s a witch — actual or just self-proclaimed is uncertain — who moves from Berkeley to a small town somewhere on the west coast after her husband dies, probably from being poisoned by her.
James: I think she moves to Eureka, way at the top of California. There’s a movie theater in one of the shots and the sign above its marquee says Eureka.
Semaj: Anyway, once she’s there, she moves into a room in a large Victorian mansion and starts making potions and painting pictures of herself naked amidst various scenes of nature and violence.
James: And then she starts hunting men.
Semaj: Yeah. But it’s hard to say “hunting” them because her demeanor is always so chill. It doesn’t seem like she’s actively doing anything. She’s more of a disturbing presence with a quiet, strange, and violent inner life.
James: That about sums her up, except you missed the fact that she is absolutely gorgeous. .
Semaj: Yeah. And she walks around naked a lot, just doing things: rituals with her friends (at which there are naked men, too), picking herbs, and preparing her potions; but all with her hair discretely covering her boobs.
James: That actress Samantha Robinson looks so familiar. But she’s a British actress, and I haven’t seen any of the other projects she’s been in.
Semaj: It’s because she looks like Lana Del Rey.
James: You’re riiiiiiight! Like a younger Lana Del Rey.
Semaj: The lips, the smile, the eyes. Even the hair.
James: Wow. And Lana has a bit of the cultish vibe that the Love Witch has. You could believe that Lana is part of some weird California rituals or covens.
Semaj: No doubt — hanging out with Father John Misty and weird older dudes.
James: So tell me a little about the “how” of this movie. If the story is basically a mysterious lady who seduces men, who then wind up dead – she’s almost like a gentle, loving serial killer – what is the way they tell that story that is so appealing to you?
Semaj: It seems to be director Anna Biller’s whole approach to filmmaking: she takes genres – usually with seventies-era/B-movie/exploitation vibes – and builds an old-fashioned look around them using wardrobe, sets, the plots, the acting styles, and especially the cinematography.
James: So it’s a throwback film that is rewriting the sexist codes of the movies and shows that it’s referencing.
Semaj: That’s right: a female killer, who grabs the men by the dicks!
James: Literally and metaphorically, dude!