“Marmion,” the epic 19th-century poem from Sir Walter Scott, gave us the immortal quote, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!” Switch out “web” for “spell” and the line could just as easily have sprung from director/writer Anna Biller’s new film The Love Witch. Biller brews up a modern tale of witchcraft, ingeniously beholden to the pulp fictions and melodramas of a more recent age.
Her titular protagonist Elaine (Samantha Robinson) speaks to us directly, relaying her tale of romantic woe, and she’s certainly bewitching. A bit too earnest, to be sure, but able to bare her brand of sex appeal with abandon, standing in stark opposition (at least on the surface) to feminism as we know it. Elaine positions herself as a philosophical throwback, eager to find a strong and handsome man to please.
At one point, she tells us that she’s “addicted to love.” That line recalls the 1986 Robert Palmer Pop hit and its trendsetting video with a mannequin-like band of models. This replaces them with a cadre of feckless and unfaithful men who have woken to love through the unburdening power of sex and witchcraft. Elaine cracks through their impenetrable wall, allowing waves of unfettered feeling to overtake and drown these hapless figures.
Of course, it is not only Elaine practicing deception. Biller twists cinematic and social conventions by revealing Elaine to be a dangerously spidery black widow. Elaine may not be filling her coffers, but she is definitely building a body count, with assistance from her deadly potions.
The Love Witch counters the darkness of its black magic with an abundance of nostalgic camp and a high level of naked titillation. Biller feeds a long-dormant addiction for fringe fetish with practiced skill. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: B+