Let's talk about a powerful woman. Her name is Elaine and she dominates an entire town of rural white men. Elaine (a magical Samantha Robinson) is Tic Tac–poppingly beautiful: voluptuous body, good legs, hair down to her wherever. When she walks down the street, men stop and leer. When she drives, she never has to fear the cops; they are dumbstruck by her glossy pink lips. Once she locks eyes with a target, he's under her spell before she drugs him with love potions. This bombshell in chiffon and retro eyeliner looks like she's stepped out of that fading time when men were men, women were women, and everyone knew who was in the next bathroom stall. And her actions prove that she knows her place: She strokes their egos, makes them dinner, and, for dessert, does a striptease.
The Love Witch, by writer/director Anna Biller, is a feminist film about a character who thinks feminism is bad news. It's delightful. Biller and Robinson tap into that stilted soap-opera speech, a way of talking in which everyone sounds like they're lying — often because they are. Biller has borrowed the movie's look from '60s melodramas like Valley of the Dolls (and its nudity from Russ Meyer's semi-sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). Everything is saturated, especially femininity. Elaine's lair is all rich purples and blues; her favorite lunch spot, a ladies-only tea room, is all pastels, the kind of cloister where women unironically wear flower crowns. Sometimes a white glow floods the screen, backlighting the actors like they're in heaven. Other times — say, at an occult bonfire — the look is pure hell.
Elaine is a witch, but her power comes from looking like Miss Universe. No man can resist the perfect female fantasy — and she certainly is a fantasy. She doesn't enjoy stroking their hair and cooing "Poor, poor baby"; she does it because she wants to be loved back. Her first husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak), dumped her — or, rather, an earlier version of her who was 40 pounds heavier and far lazier about cleaning the house and brushing her hair. She'll never make that mistake again. New Elaine has a plan. As she insists to her realtor Trish (Laura Waddell), "Men just want a pretty woman to love and take care of and make them feel like a man and give them total freedom."
Trish stares at her in horror. "What about what we want?" she bleats. But then Trish's husband walks into the room. Poor Trish.
Though at first glance we might want to be Elaine — or be with Elaine — we're aware that she's got happiness all wrong. She won't find a good marriage by sprawling across her lavender shag carpeting on a pentagram rug lined with candles, or putting up with louts, like the libertine English literature professor who immediately tries to hump her in his car. And the irony is, she's so perfect that she's inhuman, an object, a sex doll with no needs. Sure, a hunk like Detective Griff (Gian Keys) might be willing to spend a sunshine-dappled afternoon riding horses with her in matching khakis, but he's infatuated with a cartoon, not a wife.
What makes a woman act against her own self-interest? We'll be trying to parse that cultural hara-kiri for the next four years. One argument is that too many women are trained to say what men want to hear. As The Love Witch swoons on, we learn that Elaine was literally brainwashed by a guru (Jared Sanford), who puts his hands and lips wherever he wants. He's convinced Elaine, and other women like Elaine, that his fantasy is theirs.
But there are limits to Elaine's mainline into the male mind. Snuggling with a beau, we hear her think about how she can't wait to love someone for their flaws. Then we hear his thoughts: If she shows flaws, she's fired.
She's cast her spell poorly. It's clear that playing nice won't work. Time to figure out what real power looks like.