the feminist film exploring fantasy through witchcraft and tarot
Filmmaker Anna Biller discusses Victorian notions about female sexuality and the power of romance novels.
Ripe for the times, director Anna Biller's newest vibrantly hued film, which premiered in US theaters earlier this month, challenges what she sees as perceived progress in gender equality. Centering on a modern-day witch who is driven to madness and violence by her utmost desire to be loved, The Love Witch exposes societal gender biases — especially concerning sex. "There's still a taboo surrounding women enjoying sex, as insane as that is," explains Biller. "The film is about a woman who tries to give men everything they think they want from a woman in order to deflect this backlash against women's real increasing power and freedom, but all she does is become that man's plaything, and he still has no way of seeing who she is."
Growing up in Los Angeles, Biller was influenced by her creative parents — her father is an artist and her mother is a fashion designer — and by the masters. "I used to be quite a bookworm and a Shakespeare fanatic when I was younger," she says, "And I've always loved classic movies and literature. I draw from many things for inspiration, but most of them are decades old!" The vintage feel is more than evident in all of her films (she's directed several shorts and a feminist sexploitation full-length called Viva), which have the appearance of movies made half a century ago. i-D caught up with Biller to discuss designing every aspect of The Love Witch — from the screenplay to the costume construction — and why she thinks that men know better than to treat women like objects, but still prefer to.
You're responsible for everything in The Love Witch: costume and set design, screenplay, directing, musical composition. That's incredible!
I started off really small. When you're making three-minute Super 8 films, doing everything yourself is natural. I wasn't always good at it, but I was passionate about making my films better each time. I've learned so much that at this point the process is very organic.
Tell me about the witchcraft and tarot-card symbolism behind the set's design.
I looked at the Thoth tarot deck mainly for color symbolism. It's divided into specific color schemes, each with a limited range of colors, in the same way that Technicolor film sets are designed. So I made one room in the main character Elaine's house yellow-orange to represent the sun and the masculine element, and other rooms blue and purple to symbolize the moon and the feminine element. There was a lot of the yellow-gold masculine color scheme in the film, from Elaine's living room, to the summer solstice ritual at the renaissance faire, to her lover's bedroom with his gold sheets. The feminine moon element came in more in the night scenes, where we would cast a deep-blue light over the sets and exteriors.
You seem to have a very strong opinion about men and their behavior towards women.
From my experience, men seem to be overly preoccupied with sex. But I don't believe that it's necessarily a need for sex per se so much as that sex is a status symbol for men. Men put a lot of store in what other men think of them, and if they have a beautiful girlfriend or wife, they feel they've made it. It's about ego. It's also that men don't know how to talk to women, so they express themselves physically. This has to do with a lack of empathy and interest in what women can offer, and a genuine fear of a woman's power. Women cater to these deficiencies in men because they have no choice. Men choose not to do better because they know that behaving in this way gives them the upper hand.
What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings about women's sexuality?
There's this notion that if a woman tries to look sexy, she's being an idiot and just catering to male fantasy and that she's not doing it for herself. People still believe in these Victorian notions about "good girls" and "sluts," and that men desire the sluts but despise them. There's too much normalization of the sex industry, and a blame of the women involved rather than the power players who are cheating them and using them for profit. There's this notion that there's a class of women that are somehow designated to fulfill men's sexual needs. I don't think we can have gender equality while there's this underclass of women in poverty with no real choices.
How do you hope to represent female fantasy and desire in your work?
Each woman is unique in how she creates her fantasy life, but I think that some of it may evolve from how women are taught their sexual roles. Women's obsession with romance novels for instance — where does that come from? In romance novels you get these impossibly beautiful heroines who have men go so mad with desire that they can't contain themselves, so they ravage the woman. This absolves the woman from the guilt of having sex, and fulfills in them the fantasy of being so beautiful that such a handsome man would want them. What's sad is that every little girl learns that it's her supreme goal in life to be pretty. The Love Witch is sort of like one of those romance novel heroines who's almost painfully beautiful, and she drives men insane with desire. But she's also more wicked than those gothic heroines, because rather than melting into a man's arms, she uses his own sexism against him to destroy him. That's what I call female fantasy! I also try to put lots of objects in my movies to excite female lust — like the cutest dresses, hats, shoes, matching accessories, and the most expertly crafted makeup. I'm not that analytical when I'm writing, though. I try to take a lot from the unconscious. So I mostly just try to go with my fantasies without really examining where they come from. And I'm pleased to find that women are identifying with that.
"The Love Witch" is in theaters now. For screening information visit thelovewitch.oscilloscope.net.
Text Paige Silveria
Images courtesy Anna Biller