‘The Love Witch’ is Camp whether it wants to be or not

Before watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the only other instance I had encountered similar aesthetics and attitudes were in The Love Witch (2017) by Anna Biller. The film is about a witch called Elaine who uses her magic to manipulate men in order to satisfy her insatiable capacity for sex and love. Key aesthetic elements of camp are extremely apparent in The Love Witch. These include but are not limited to: the choice of using 35mm film which produces a unique texture to match the saturated garish colours, the anachronistic setting, the indulgent use of mystic elements, the affected accents and mannerisms of the actors, the morally decadent behaviour displayed, and the explicit theme of performance and gender conveyed through extravagant costumes. In interviews, Biller has revealed her various cinematic inspirations, many of them classical Hollywood films. Elaine harks back to iconic female characters such as Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). However, interestingly, Biller herself has strong opinions against people who label her films as ‘camp’, ‘trash’ or ‘sexploitation’, as well as straightforwardly feminist (she says ‘isms’ aren’t helpful unless you’re creating a manifesto, or selling a political agenda, which she isn’t trying to do). Here is an excerpt of her interview in Sight and Sound, where she is asked about her thoughts on the male gaze and addresses the comparisons people draw between her films and Russ Meyer’s films:

 

The most sexist thing is when [critics] call [my film] sexploitation or they say I’m copying Russ Meyer. That’s like saying I made the movie to get men off, rather than for any other possible reason. That says, not only do I not have a gaze at all, but women don’t have a gaze… So when I say I disagree with 80 per cent of my reviews, it’s because they use the word sexploitation, or exploitation, or sleaze, or trash, or any word that’s tawdry or debased on purpose as [if I’m doing this as] a joke. What I’m doing is transforming female experience and trauma through fairytale and cinema, into something fantastic and beautiful. And that can be my fantasy, and I’m not a man.

[…]

I didn’t want to get anyone who was interested in camp or camping it up at all. I never discussed any of that with any of the actors – to create a stylistic performance. In fact, it’s never seen in the script that it’s period. We did watch some movies together, Samantha, who is a cinephile, and I, for character study. But nobody ever spoke about it being retro acting or wooden acting or Brechtian acting, anything. We just found the truth of the characters and this is what came out.[1]

 

Biller’s interpretation of camp and trash film as being “tawdry or debased on purpose” assumes that all of them are knowing camp, which is why she understandably takes offence when she is deadly serious about everything when crafting The Love Witch. However, in resisting the label of camp so much yet indulging in the same conventions of style, the film can be seen as a naïve camp film in denial. Camp is viewer-driven and even while I understand Biller’s use of exaggerated female mystic symbols and tropes are for the purpose of conveying a truthful experience of the feminine experience, Susan Sontag points out that in camp “the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails…[and those that can be redeemed as camp are] only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve”[2], which I think The Love Witch fulfils exceedingly well.

 

[1] Kim Morgan, ‘Spellbound’, Sight and Sound, 2017, 27(4), 40–44.

[2] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966), 275-292.

 

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