If you didn’t know any better, “The Love Witch” would seem like a lost gem straight out of the 1960s. Everything from its saturated colors, to its “presentational style” acting, which gives its players a deliberately wooden feel. Its heroine, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) looks like she’s stepped off a Tarot Barbie conveyor belt. At one point she proclaims, “Men just want a pretty woman to love and take care of and make them feel like a man and give them total freedom.” She’s the ultimate male fantasy. That’s all by design.
See Elaine is a beautiful young witch coming from a rough past to a new, small town and a fresh start, determined to find the love of her life. With one blink of her luscious, mod eyelashes, men are in her thrall. With one sip of her love potion they’re done for. Only problem is the men keep disappointing her — and that typically leaves them in a lot of trouble.
Where “The Love Witch” updates the ‘60s Technicolor thrillers of days gone by is the flip of the script: The men in Elaine’s life come and go; Anytime a new one shows up Elaine is skeptical of their presence, even while she’s desperate for their love. It’s the women who stick around, building real relationships with her and propelling her journey forward.
Of course, in ‘60s style, the plot takes its time getting there. It languishes about like a femme fatale in seduction mode, laying itself out so you have enough time to appreciate the artistry and the scrumptious design of it all.
The vivid, almost garish colors pop from scene to scene, the campy moments piling up while they cut in more serious issues. As Elaine and her fellow witches discuss a woman’s power and men’s fear of it, director Anna Biller cuts between their solemn stares and a burlesque dancer’s routine on stage behind them.
Biller’s intensity with examining female fantasy and desire within the space of 1960s kitsch is certainly admirable. It’s almost Tarantino-esque in the way it melds old-timey feel with modern anachronisms like phones or cars. For those in the audience who are familiar with that area of film — its tropes, its look, its hard lighting — “The Love Witch” is a delicious delve into the shelves of the past. Biller takes on both feminism and film as arrows in her quiver, and once you can appreciate that the movie gains more dimension and mechanics of it all start to become a boon not a curse.
Of course the love witch’s conjuring catches up to her, after Biller has had her fun stretching and exploring love, desire, and feminism. When it does it’s a little too close to the end to make as much of an effect as the vibrant, almost tactile world jumping off the screen for two hours.
There are limits to how clearly Elaine can see into men’s minds, and that saccharine worldview turns bitter in the end; in one of the many scenes with incorporeal narration we hear her yearning to appreciate a partner for his flaws, while her latest beau thinks about how if she displays a single blemish he’s done. The climax of “The Love Witch” takes some interesting turns around her power, and her agency.
Almost two hours into the movie, it’s too late to be as bewitching as the film might like it to be. But at least getting to that point has some charm all its own.
“The Love Witch” plays through Dec. 1 at SIFF Film Center.