FEMINIST GRAB-BAG: The Love Witch & Elle

Love Witch

The Love Witch

4 Stars (4 / 5)
Love is a many-splendoured thing. It can also be deadly, especially when magick’s involved.

Such is the takeaway from The Love Witch, a flawless ’70s-style melodrama from writer-director/musician/editor/set-art-costume-production-designer Anna Biller.

An obvious “passion project”, in more ways than one, the film is a delicious slice of feminist theory masquerading as Technicolour confection. Elaine (surely a breakout role for Samantha Robinson) is a raven-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty, and practicing Wiccan, who arrives in small-city California in her cherry-red Mustang; straight from Stepford, or so it seems. She’s looking for love and she doesn’t care how many men she has to go through to get it.

Her lovers all look like they could have stepped off the set of a daytime soap – actually true in the case of long-haired Wayne (General Hospital’s Jeffrey Vincent Parise) – but, despite their manly promise, they prove quickly disposable. No sooner has she got them home then they become pathetically dependent on her. Then they die. Oh, well.

In Elaine’s live-and-let-die philosophy, men are dumb animals: easily manipulated through displays of cooing affection or calculated lust, and, of course, the occasional psychotropic love potion. Only the cop investigating the deaths, the square-jawed, understatedly macho Griff (Gian Keys), might be able to withstand her affections, but what then?

In concept The Love Witch sounds like a simple throwback, but Biller pitches it so perfectly that it never veers into outright camp; however histrionic the performances or knowingly stilted the dialogue.

The period details, too, are expertly chosen: a simple desk lamp – brass, with a pull cord and green plastic shade – feels like it must have required a casting process in itself. A witch-hating local at the dive bar/burlesque show the Wiccan’s frequent looks like a cross between Robert Forster and the guy from The Greasy Strangler, which in any other situation might prove distracting. Here it’s just part of the charm; as is the fact that the display on the computer screen in Griff’s office is literally pasted on.

The Love Witch is a film populated by archetypes like the fusty, exposition-handy British professor or lechy occult leader and characterised by locations like ladies-only Victorian tearooms (complete with melodically warbling harpist), Renaissance Faires, or Elaine’s own apartment; with its gaudy mythological trappings (painted unicorns and the like). It feels compelling, in part, because of this self-conscious artificiality; the sense of a world, like Elaine’s makeup, lovingly and expertly applied.

Filmed on lush 35mm, every frame of The Love Witch feels like a glamour shot, especially where Elaine’s involved. The fact that it’s all in service to a subsumed commentary on the oft-fatal paradox of male-female attraction – and features an ingenious, oh-so-casual anachronism that ranks with the best moments of the year to date – makes for a winey cinematic brew you’ll want to drink to the lees.

 

Elle

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Over black, the sound of fabric ripping. The sound of yelling, of blows landing on flesh. Suddenly, a grey cat; its sea-green eyes placidly observing a rape.

The victim is Michèle Leblanc (the Oscar-nominated Isabella Huppert). It is a label she will spend the rest of the film tacitly refuting. The first thing Michèle does after her ordeal is gather herself together, cover up her exposed breast, clean up the broken glass, take a bath (pushing under the blood that rises to the surface amidst the bubbles), and order in some food. She orders two pieces of Hamachi and asks about the “Holiday Roll”.

Best known for rampaging sci-fi/social satires like RoboCop and Total Recall, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven understandably found getting US funding for Elle a more difficult – neigh, impossible – task.

The film never seeks pity for Michèle; instead choosing to present her in all her, sometimes unlikable, complexity. She is, for instance, having an affair with the odious Robert (Christian Berkel) her husband of her best friend and a man for whom she has no particular regard. However, she clearly loves her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), a well-meaning sponger and layabout; whose domineering girlfriend, the pregnant Josie (Alice Isaaz), Michèle constantly reminds him is almost certainly cheating on him.

Elle is in part a character study of this deeply fashionable woman, smiling thinly despite her trauma; a contradictory figure who profits from disturbingly sexualized images of women via the video game company she runs and feels no compunction about masturbating over her handsome, family-man neighbor Patrick (Lauren Lafitte) through binoculars.

The film is also a veiled whodunnit. Could the masked rapist be Robert, in whom Michèle has shown a declining interest? Or perhaps her seemingly decent, down-on-his-luck ex, Richard (Charles Berlin), who’s shacked up with a woman half his age but still finds time to hang out on her street. Could it be one of her employees – the hostile Kurt (Lucas Pisor), the oh-so-amenable Kevin (Arthur Mazet) – or perhaps a complete stranger?

Michèle’s refusal to go to the police is, we learn, grounded in a blood, terrible incident from her childhood; an infamous event that still has strangers harassing her in public. She does, however, inform a circle of her friends, casually, over dinner. They are horrified, but Michèle shrugs it off: “What is there to say?” Plenty, as it turns out.

Dark and layered, Elle also has shades of Buñuel and Molière in its depiction of barbed interplay between the affluent professional class. If Elle had been set in New York, it might have been a Woody Allen film; grounded in neuroticism. Here it’s all detached hauteur; a rape thriller with laughs in it, that touches upon notions of victimhood and, dare we say it, complicity, without ever straying into exploitation. On that charge, to use Michèle’s own words, it’s twisted but there’s no smoking gun.

Too sophisticated to be dismissed as Eurotrash as Showgirls was, too provocative for the mainstream audience Basic Instinct appealed to, Verhoeven may have pigeonholed himself somewhat with this one, but, as cinematic dovecotes go, it’s one well worth examining.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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