Women led films seem to be having a bit of a long overdue moment, solidified by the release of Captain Marvel, just in time for International Women’s Day. We can point to this as progress albeit progress that is long overdue; finally, after 20 movies, Marvel is releasing a film with a woman as the central character. However, when we look at the stories these films are telling, are the narratives about women for women, or do they just feature a female lead character in place of a male, telling stories that are more of the same? We could even ask, why does this distinction matter?
That’s not to say that people aren’t telling stories about womanhood through film outside of blockbusters released by Disney. Film 4 have programmed a slate of female-focused films to coincide with International Women’s Day. While many great films are being shown, one stood out to me as an example of a movie that centres women in every frame – Anna Biller’s 2016 The Love Witch.
Biller’s film centres on Elaine, a witch looking for love after fleeing San Francisco for small-town coastal California. She has definite ideas about what men want from a relationship, and she attempts to embody the concept of what men want from a relationship in her quest for love, with the help of witchcraft. The film takes the ideas of masculinity and femininity to their limits, exploring men’s fear of women, and what happens when that fear is realised.
When The Love Witch was released, it garnered comparisons to exploitation and sexploitation films of the sixties and seventies, films like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by Russ Meyer (1965). Anna Biller, the director of the film, has directly dismissed these comparisons, citing the genre’s exclusion of women as viewers as incompatible with her vision.
Looking at the film, it’s not hard to see why these comparisons have riled Biller. While aesthetically, it’s evocative, narratively, it’s the polar opposite. Femininity in The Love Witch is central to the narrative as a living, breathing, nuanced concept, whereas it’s used in exploitation films as decoration and an element to exploit. That’s not to say it’s impossible to apply a feminist reading to exploitation films – you can particularly point to the power found in the films of Pam Grier for example – but it tends to have been an often-unintended side effect rather than central to the film. The Love Witch works not as a homage to exploitation. It’s a both a repudiation and a contrast.
It’s evident that this is a film by women, for women. The first conversation in the movie explicitly passes the Bechdel test, a test some have pointed to as shallow, but it feels referential, setting up the universe the film inhabits. The men are objectified not for the way they look but for the love they can provide to Elaine. They are numerous, disposable, and used in a way we usually see women being used. That’s not to say it’s a role reversal. The men in the film are objectifying and projecting onto Elaine for her beauty, representing the symbiotic relationship between masculinity and femininity.
While it would be easy to read the film as misandrist, the criticism is of the construct of masculinity rather than men themselves. It is masculinity that has led the men to be unable to express emotion, literally to the point of death.
Perhaps the most apparent commonality it shares with exploitation films is that the film is a visual spectacle. In exploitation films, the (male) spectator is invited to look, and the depiction of women, in particular, is very transactional. The Love Witch subverts this by making the spectacle central to the narrative, a spectacle that is not specific to the male gaze. The film is an absolute pleasure to look at, but it’s not for the same reason. It’s the vibrant cinematography and the use of technicolour, it’s the mis-en-scene that Biller herself had a direct hand in, from costuming to production design.
While it potentially isn’t for everyone in the way mega-films like Captain Marvel aim to be, The Love Witch is a triumph, and one of the most clearly expressed films made about femininity and the experience of womanhood. It’s clear that there is inherent value in making films that reflect this aesthetically and narratively, rather than just pasting a woman in the place of a male lead.
The Love Witch is on Film4 on Saturday 9 March at 11.40pm.