Say hello to your new obsession: A spellbinding homage to old pulp paperbacks and the Technicolor melodramas of the 1960s, Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” is a throwback that’s told with a degree of perverse conviction and studied expertise that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. Shot in velvety 35mm and seen through the lens of a playfully violent female gaze, the film follows a beautiful, narcissistic young sorceress named Elaine (Samantha Robinson, unforgettable in a demented breakthrough performance) as she blows into a coastal Californian town in desperate search of a replacement for her recently murdered husband. Sex, death, Satanic rituals, God-level costume design, and cinema’s greatest tampon joke ensue, as Biller spins an archly funny — but also hyper-sincere — story about the true price of the patriarchy. There hasn’t been anything quite like it in decades.
Entrancingly self-possessed, “The Love Witch” announces itself with rare authority and conviction — the movie isn’t a minute old before its filled you with the first blush of a contact high from some seriously potent hallucinogens. Biller is a detail-driven visual fetishist whose previous work (including 2007’s “Viva”) has hinted at her gift for seducing genuine substance from an overflowing cauldron of style, but her new film is completely transportive right off the hop. Working with cinematographer David M. Mullen to resurrect the diffuse and gauzy look of vaguely sinister fare like Jacques Demy’s “Donkey Skin,” Biller melds old techniques with a modern perspective, conjuring a world that feels lost in time and completely true to itself.
And it only takes one shot to get you there: Elaine speeds down an oceanside highway, heartbreak and rear-projection behind her and a bright new future ahead. “I’m starting a new life,” she incants via voiceover, sitting at the wheel and staring into the camera with a lit cigarette in one hand and pools of blue eye makeup above both eyes. She looks like a Giallo movie’s impression of Lana Del Rey, the wind blowing through her long black wig as memories of the husband she poisoned to death flash in her mind.
A serial killer who thinks of herself as the star of a rom-com, Elaine is both empathetic and deeply deranged (a line that Robinson walks with wide-eyed glee), but it doesn’t take long to understand the cause and depth of her psychosis. “Giving men sex is a way of unlocking their love potential,” she flatly tells a married friend over tea in pink Victorian funhouse. “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” the friend replies.
She’s not wrong. Elaine — a beautiful woman who probably doesn’t need to brew fatally effective love potions out of piss, nails, and period blood in order to make men fall for her — is wracked between the fairy tale fantasy of medieval gender roles and the dehumanizing reality of actually living by them. “What do you men want?” she asks rhetorically. “Just a pretty woman to take care of them.” As much a product of misogyny and the male gaze as the killer alien Scarlett Johansson played in “Under the Skin,” Elaine is a symbol of screaming hot sex who rages at the idea that men won’t see her as anything more. She’s a fully “constructed” female who’s singleminded in her pursuit of love, a woman who’s become convinced that whittling herself down to a doll of slavish devotion is the only way to win her share. And she won’t let anyone stand in her way: Not her friends, not the string of random men who have the bad luck of crossing her path, buddies, not even the frequently nude Satanists who perform all sorts of queasy rituals in the woods outside of town.
Paced like a bad trip, “The Love Witch” boils through much of its testing two-hour runtime without much of a plot to speak of — Elaine meets and then murders a series of men, eventually drawing the attention of a strapping, square-jawed detective (Gian Keys). Biller doesn’t mine her premise for all the drama that it has to offer, she never quite solves the mystery of what to do with a sociopathic heroine who (by definition) is resistant to change, but she has no trouble stretching the story’s gender politics in continually fascinating directions or sustaining its woozy vibe until the bitter end.
Biller shows an incredible command of tone and texture, the committed sensuality of her production design allowing her to thread the needle between camp and classicism. But the degree of consistency on display here is only possible because every department is on the same page, from the marvelously florid costumes (which Biller designed herself) to the performances of each supporting actor, all of whom is attuned to the weirdo vibes the movie is putting out there. And their faces… Biller’s greatest talent may ultimately be for casting — from the angular actor who plays Elaine’s dead ex-husband (his name is Stephen Wozniak) to the scraggly, super-thirsty professor type (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) who cries himself to death after a night of passion with Elaine, every single person who appears on screen helps strengthen the uneasy aura that the film creates.
And Robinson leads the way, taking us deep into the dark heart of a woman who’s always just wanted men to look at her like she’s a real person, but has been denied that basic respect for so long that simply meeting their gaze has reduced her into something less. Elaine thinks of herself as “just a little girl dreaming of being carried off on a white horse,” but she’s matured into a self-obsessed monster — one of the most exciting movie monsters I’ve ever seen.
“The Love Witch” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, November 11, and in New York on November 18.