When it comes to contemporary movies ahistorically emulating the era-specific style(s) of yesteryear, the result is usually a cheap, crude, and simplified feature-length "joke" at the expense of something genuine that exists within and is informed by historical context. 50s-era Hollywood B-movies have their place in history as the ass-end of theatrical double bills: far weirder, more freewheeling, or able to deal head-on with controversial subjects than their A-level compatriots. However, 2002's THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA takes what is a real and by comparison naturally occurring cinematic phenomenon and transposes it as a deliberate, overwrought spoof. In other words, it emulates something, adds nothing, and ultimately arrives at an empty, mean-spirited conclusion.
THE LOVE WITCH (Anna Biller, 2016) is an altogether different sort of ahistorical emulation. The key difference is, well, love. Embracing an era's style with sensitivity, admiration, and deference, yet also the independence of an auteur filmmaker yields a thoughtful, engaging critique of the past by way of a work that stands on its own feet. Biller's film owes its look, feel, and (to some degree) narrative content to the high-key Technicolor gialli of the seventies, the kind of movies where the blood runs a thick, waxlike pastel red, looks not even a bit realistic, but somehow comes to vivid life among the companion blue and yellow hues. While the actual seventies-era films achieved this look mostly through chemical means (i.e. the specific film stock), Biller emulates these aspects with detailed set and costume design, adhering to a strict color palette. Nonetheless, the result is an approximation.
While embracing aesthetics of camp common to marginal or disreputable seventies-era genres, such as the not-quite-disguised sex romp fare from Crown International or virtually any X-rated soft-style sexploitation film, the acting and performances in THE LOVE WITCH function as a kind of gilded homage to that era of incidental weirdness. It is as if Biller's camera lingers too long on its actors' faces for that extra something, the awkwardness added by a late cut, the archetypes of films that by design were lean, spare, cut down to the basics. And even though the performances in THE LOVE WITCH seem unnatural, perturbing, and even occasionally grating, they never feel that they lack purpose. Biller registers as a devoted student and an ardent fan of the cinema she emulates and through adoration produces something heightened: a self-aware pro-feminist reflection of the past.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon