It can be fun when filmmakers play with styles and archetypes lost to time, exploring new stories on a playground built decades past in cinema history. But what if, as in the case of “The Love Witch,” a film becomes so archetypical it loses touch with anything solid?
Anna Biller’s new horror-thriller, playing Nov. 25 through Dec. 1 at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle Center, hits viewers’ eyeballs in sumptuous 35mm. The love witch herself, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), walks and sometimes struts around a world festooned with billowy blues, drip-dry reds and blacks as black as the void.
The film opens with Elaine leaving San Francisco for new climes far from her old life. In an early scene she fumbles, from behind the wheel, for her cigarettes, encased provocatively in a red case. She bobbles the catch and her Rider-Waite tarot cards spill over the seat, showcasing the Three Of Swords.
The card signifies a devastation that must be faced, then embraced, for the soul to go onward. As the film spools onward, Elaine meets several men, and her love destroys them all. The destruction, oddly enough for the tarot card’s standard warning, rains down on anyone she takes to bed, not on herself — except, perhaps, over the long haul.
But, truly, this movie’s plot takes a back seat to its visuals, which are a love letter to the Technicolor films of the 1950s and ‘60s. Murals as garish as Elaine’s tarot cards adorn every wall of the Victorian apartment she takes in her new hometown. Bright, retro neon paints the outdoor scenes, as do brightly painted signs. We never see any automobiles newer than early ‘70s models. It often feels like watching an old episode of “Adam-12” or “Emergency!” if either show were wont to shift matter-of-factly into a work of softcore porn.
I wish the rest of the picture could match its aesthetic. Style is the name of the game in the actors’ postures and dialogue. People don’t talk, they deliver two-way philosophical speeches at a nanosecond’s notice. About men, about women. About how men control the world, but that’s okay, because women control men. All women need to do is play the subservient, tending to their men in the bedroom, to end up running the show. I imagine that’s meant as ironic comedy, but it doesn’t touch anything relatable.
Does Elaine get her just deserts in the end? Does the Three of Hearts fulfill its prophecy? For that, you must make it to the end of the film — where the last line, in the credits, sung sweetly, is indeed “destroy.” But for effective destruction, you must destroy something coveted. Something that had value before it was destroyed. “The Love Witch” slides by in a mélange of popsicle colors, here this minute, melted away tomorrow. Nothing’s sticky, so nothing sticks.