Posts Tagged ‘feminism’


*Note: this is an analysis, not a review. I spoil everything.

One of the earliest arguments to originate from the Mediterranean basin is the male/female dialectic of the woman providing the flesh and blood of humanity, the man the soul. Espoused by Greek philosophers, eventually translated into Jewish and then Christian doctrine, this element of the woman as the conveying vessel for humanity – evident even in the concept of the Virgin Birth – has had the effect of reducing women to the corporeal, of making the importance of women existent only in their ability to bear children. A barren woman is a hollow husk, devoid of her most basic function, while a fertile woman is reduced only to the function. This simultaneous valorization and dehumanization of motherhood has informed Western thought and art for centuries, so it’s hardly surprising that a contemporary film should enthusiastically reflect the same dialectic.

Blade Runner 2049 makes use of this dialectic in rendering women the conveying vessels of the humanity of replicants. But female bodies are more than just baby-machines – in Blade Runner 2049, they are also the repositories of male desire, sexual, religious, cultural, and social. The film indulges in the fragmentation and destruction of female bodies without bothering – or apparently desiring – to restore them. Women are robots, holograms, and advertisements; the only human female, Madam, is deliberately de-sexualized, her humanity reliant on her lack of (visual) femininity that also makes her easy to eliminate. In the commodification of the female form and image, there is hope for subversion, a questioning of the patriarchal superstructure that forces women into the “hollow vessel” role. Perhaps the film is setting up a vision of a world in which that commodification becomes the source of rebellion?

Perhaps not. The women of Blade Runner 2049 continue to be (at times literally) pulled apart, their bodies the repository of male desire with no hint of human autonomy – or soul. This is not merely a result of the actions of the male characters, but of the camera eye itself, which consumes women and fragments them, emphasizing their physicality and discardability. When the new designer of replicants Wallace witnesses the “birth” of a new replicant, he bends to caress her, the camera tracking his movements as he strokes the naked body of the young woman. The woman stands, shivering, and the camera eye itself focalizes through Wallace, sweeping up her body, dwelling on the curves of her ass, her stomach, and her breasts. Finally, Wallace stabs her and blood pours down her thighs – a visual reference to both menstruation and miscarriage, created by the male villain. But because the camera has taken Wallace’s perspective, and participated in the sexualization of the newly born replicant, any deliberate subversion is undercut by its evident participation in the replicant’s violation. The violation of the female body is made to seem horrific, but it is still the violation of a symbol, a symbolic rape and dissection that renders the existence of female humanity itself moot. Wallace caresses and then punishes the female body, and the camera participates in that punishment.

Wallace is the villain, and so his efforts at dehumanizing his creations might very well be indicative of his villainy. The same cannot be said for the film’s protagonist K, a replicant police officer in the mold of the original film’s hero Deckard. K might be a replicant existing within the system, and so absorbs all the system’s beliefs. But the film never provides him the opportunity to break free of those beliefs, instead attempting to provide him with a “love interest” in the form of a hologram program named Joi. At no point does he truly break free of that system or question the role of women – or female figures – within it. Joi is something that he has purchased and that he wishes to make “more human.” She eventually inhabits the physical body of a prostitute Mariette – herself a replicant – to provide the physical connection that K desires. But the film never makes it clear if Joi herself needs or wants that physical connection, because her programming means that she only acts on K’s desires. Joi is missing a part of herself – she is only an image, a thing that K can modify (literally upgrade) according to his needs, whims, and desires. Her personhood does not exist because it cannot; she can only ever be “half” a human being, the other half – the all-important physical body – provided by a woman who sells herself.

The frank attempt at eroticizing this scene, at stating that this is something that Joi wants, falls flat in the images we have of K modifying and altering Joi as he sees fit, in order to provide for himself that emotional and, eventually, physical catharsis. Joi cannot give consent any more than the prostitute can, because she has no external will – it is only K’s will, and Joi can only, at best, act as a symbolic repository for his desire. Her value is physical – any emotional or psychological connection the two share is treated as secondary. Her “gift” to him is to try to inhabit the physical body of Mariette, and it is a gift that he accepts, largely as his due. The film figures Joi as not being enough for K until she becomes physical – another devaluation of female existence down to the simple fact of the physical body.

Again, this division of the image and the corporeal might have provided sexual and gender dynamic commentary, but Joi once again is forced to occupy a symbolic space. Her union with Mariette is about providing K with a connection to his humanness, the sex act establishing him as more human than robot. While some emphasis is given to their emotional connection, the relationship between K and Joi is not really codified until Joi becomes momentarily corporeal. Her existence as a female image with artificial intelligence is not enough – there must be a female body for K to sleep with. Afterwards, Joi discards the body, telling Mariette “I’m done with you.” Joi herself can only find value in her existence when it becomes physical – and K is more than willing to accept the “gift” of a prostitute in order to achieve physical catharsis. Joi’s greatest act of personal autonomy is in the purchasing of a female body for her “husband.” When she is finally destroyed, Joi tells K that she loves him – but the film never spends any time investigating Joi’s potential humanity, and her “death” is primarily figured as a symbolic loss for K.

Both Joi and Mariette are things that K has purchased to fulfill his desires, but it is Mariette who is able to gain some agency outside of the human/replicant, male/female dialectic. But even her apparent autonomy is short-lived. She is given a voice as a prostitute, mocking K for his “love” of Joi and Joi for her holographic emptiness, but once Mariette joins the replicant rebellion, she becomes faceless, another female body among many female bodies, acting as a single entity. She is used as a medium of exchange, her body providing a connection between K and the rebellion, to draw him in and introduce him to Freysa, who provides further plot exposition about K’s assignment in the rebellion. Freysa, in her turn, is merely a conduit for information to K and to the viewer. The total trifecta of the “good” female replicants/AIs are as conduits, vessels, and sources of information for the male protagonist.

Blade Runner shares a few affinities with the contemporary Bond franchise, among them the use of a female henchman for the villain. Tortured and likely abused by Wallace, Luv exists to reinforce the patriarchal structure as Wallace’s slave who becomes as evil as the man who abuses her. As K drowns her, the camera brings us up close to her suffering, indulging in her contorted face until she finally dies. This might be moving, even pathetic, were the film interested in summoning up more than a cursory interest in her psyche. Rather, it becomes simply the destruction of a villain by the comparative hero, another instance in which the female body and face is made to undergo cleansing pain in order for the men to, finally, go free. Luv hints at a deeper characterization, but the film never follows through on it, instead turning her into an abused woman who gleefully abuses others, a relatively banal character type whose violation is turned inward, transforming her into a monster. Wallace himself is never particularly punished for his treatment of his replicants, including Luv. K’s anger is enacted against the female body; it is female suffering that gives meaning, and catharsis, to the male.

The other female character who could have potentially complicated Blade Runner’s view of women is Madam, K’s human superior. There are undertones of S&M dominance in Madam, down to her name and the deliberate representation of her physicality as largely androgynous. Her costuming and behavior renders her largely sexless – as the only female character possessed of autonomy, she must also not be seen as feminine. Madam is not an object of desire and therefore is human, but she is also disposable – she sacrifices her life for K’s, eliminated by Luv in yet another exhibition of female suffering, this time in defense of the male protagonist. While Madam has a character name, Lieutenant Joshi, she is rarely referred to as such, her being reduced to a title that recalls a dominatrix, a woman operating for male pleasure.

The crux of Blade Runner 2049 does indeed offer up women as the salvation of the replicants, the proof of their humanity. But again, it is only the physical female body that is important here; female replicants remain soulless. Rachael’s only presence is as literal bones, a total fragmentation of her body and her image. The imprint of birth on her body – a mark from a C-section on her pelvis – confirms her ability to bear children and thus her humanity. The question of her having a soul is fairly moot – she is merely a vessel to convey salvation into the world, a symbol of replicant humanness. Moreover, the question of Deckard’s humanity further complicates an understanding of the child that has been produced. If Deckard is human – and I think there’s a good argument for that – then what has been proven is that a replicant woman can carry a human child; but even more than that, it allows Deckard to provide the humanity, the soul, to the replicant body. The film’s unwillingness to answer the question of Deckard being a replicant – at least with any degree of clarity – muddies the waters of cinematic meaning. If Deckard as a human can produce a child with a replicant woman, then all that says is that female replicants are capable of child-bearing. If Deckard as a replicant can produce a replicant child, then there is greater flexibility for understanding that relationship.

The importance of female physicality is once again emphasized as Deckard refuses Wallace’s offer of a “new Rachael,” because her eyes are the wrong color. With a single word, a supposedly human figure is destroyed because the physical body does not match male desire. While the film uses this as a source of horror, it does not follow through on it – once again the female body is merely the site of male need, important only to evoke a sense of horror in the viewer. The destruction of the feminine, the horror of watching a female body rendered, is meant to evoke a quick emotion, to impress upon the viewer the evilness of Wallace and, perhaps, the coldness of Deckard. But those bodies are still dehumanized; once again, the female body is a symbol of exchange and bargaining, not a living, autonomous thing. Rachel is executed and the film moves on, confident that it has made its point.

The child, likewise, is merely symbolic – she cannot ever move outside of the world that she creates for others, and her major connection to the story is in providing her own memories to the male hero – completely removing a part of herself and injecting it into his psyche, because she cannot act on her own memories or desires. Both Rachael and her daughter are symbols of humanity without having humanity themselves; they are devoid of autonomy neither are fighters, soldiers, or rebels, and their eventual role in whatever replicant uprising that is about to take place will, again, only be as symbols. Rachael, because she is dead, and her daughter, because she can never move from outside her confines.

While Deckard’s daughter does indeed inject elements of humanity into the replicants, she can only ever act as a symbol for their humanity, because she has no autonomy outside of that. The ending of the film “gives” her to Deckard, as K tells him to “go see your daughter” – she is his possession, a thing that he has created (though he never participated in her life), and that is there to prove the humanity of the replicants, to act as their symbol for the coming age. She is merely a cog in the male narrative, seen through male eyes, and given importance via male desire.

To subvert patriarchy, a film has to do more than simply represent it. And patriarchy, in Blade Runner, is neither positive nor negative – it simply is. Wallace might be the villain, but it is the camera that fragments and assaults the female body. Female value is formed only through women’s ability to act as symbols for a male-driven narrative. It is the male that is most fully human, the woman a simple vessel for his needs and desires, a physical proof of the human/robot dialectic. To make child-bearing the sole mark of humanity – the indication of the soul – means to reduce female existence to the ability to have children. Female autonomy, emotions, desires, needs, are nothing in comparison to being a symbol for the progress of humanity/replicancy. The female body is merely a vessel to convey information, a thing in which the male can implant information. The backwards nature of such a foundational plot element renders Blade Runner 2049 into something viciously, insidiously anti-woman, an argument that turns female bodies into corporeal vessels, repositories, things to be controlled, mutilated, or venerated, but never to be understood as autonomous beings. The men provide the soul, the women provide the body…and nothing more.

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Prevenge (2016)

*soon to be streaming on Shudder

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There’s nothing weirder, or more terrifying, than taking the innocence of the child and imbuing it with a secret malevolence concealed behind an angelic face. Within the evil child subgenre of horror, the mother is typically the victim, the most obvious target for the child’s hatred. Alice Lowe’s bizarrely delightful horror comedy Prevenge takes those tropes and warps them even further to create a bloody, hilarious, and moving story that asks the question: what if your unborn baby was a serial murderer?

Writer/director Lowe is Ruth, a very pregnant young woman in Cardiff who becomes convinced that her unborn daughter is impelling her to commit murder. As Ruth and her massive belly cut a bloody swath through the night, the mystery of her vengeance is gradually revealed through flashbacks and personal discussions between Ruth and her daughter. The murders are suitably gruesome without being overkill, while Ruth’s motivation for the killings becomes complicated by the fact that none of her victims are particularly sympathetic people.

Lowe is an entertaining screen presence with a wry sense of humor, punctuating her horror film with comedic moments that cut through the violence. She likewise imbues the undeniably comedic aspects of the film with a very palpable sense of anger and loss. Like The Babadook (another film about sympathetic female monstrosity and motherhood), Prevenge treats grief as a physical presence that manifests itself through acts of horrific violence. But the film is further complicated by the questionable nature of Ruth’s sanity – is her unborn child really a monster, or is her pregnancy and its undercurrent of grief warping her mind?

The difference between Prevenge and a similar pregnancy horror film like Rosemary’s Baby is that the mother is herself not a victim – she finds outlet for her fury through her pregnancy, refusing to be subject to the assumptions and controls of the rest of society. It’s hard to feel sorry for most of those subjected to Ruth’s wrath, representative as they are of selfishness, misogyny, and complacency. Ruth’s pregnancy represents both her monstrosity and her strength; she possesses the social stigma and monstrosity that transforms a woman’s body into a vessel “controlled” by the unborn child. While Western society is accustomed to treating pregnant women as both the sublime form of human nature and the ultimate Other, Ruth takes over her Otherness, using it to enact revenge on those who (in her perception) have wronged her.

Prevenge has few weaknesses. It’s well-paced, building up the tension between Ruth’s acts of violence by interspersing visits to the doctor to monitor her pregnancy, and her conversations with the very angry child inside of her. Giving voice to the baby makes it more palpably real, deepening the question of whether Ruth is acting out her own revenge fantasy or the fury of the child that has been deprived even before it was born. That voice also contributes to the comedic nature of the film, refusing to plunge too deeply into elements of horror, grief, or anger, as Ruth argues with a tiny childish voice inside of her about the morality of cutting off a man’s balls.

The female body and female emotions have so typically been the site of monstrosity in horror films that women began to suppress the notion that our hormones and our physical presence in any way distinguished us from maleness. PMS, postpartum depression, the alterations in hormones that comes with pregnancy, the pain of having a period – all suppressed in the belief that to be female was, in essence, to be an Other, to be something unknown and frightening. In evil child films, to be a mother is to be a victim, and in some ways a deserving one – the mother is the conduit for unnatural evil, the one who brought the evil into the world and is thus destroyed by it. It is the role of the father, or of the masculine society, to control that evil, condemn it, and banish it, usually at the expense of mother and child alike. Femininity is uncontrollable emotions writ large, and as such must be suppressed and controlled by the more rational masculine forces.

Prevenge eliminates the father, the patriarchal, and embraces Otherness, the perceived monstrosity of women, and of pregnant women especially. What’s more, it does so from a sympathetic, feminine perspective, emphasizing the cohesion between mother and child, the reality of female anger and the need to express it, or to destroy the world in the attempt. In horror, women typically have a choice between being the victim or the monster. We’ve chosen the monster.

Prevenge will stream on Shudder on March 24.

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The Witch (2016)

*originally published on The News Hub

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Whatever you do, don’t go into the woods – there are witches there. That’s the basic moral of The Witch, one of the odder and more provocative works of cinematic horror to appear in the past few years. Directed by first timer Robert Eggers and without a single star to its name, it has received a wide theater release on the strength of critical praise from Sundance and beyond. It won the Directing Award at Sundance and has been critically touted as the “scariest film of the year,” a slow-burning folktale that reaches back to the roots of Puritanism and our ancestors’ terror of Satanic possession. Critics have dubbed it a milestone in horror, a game changer, a new world order.

There is no doubt that The Witch is a remarkable film. At a basic cinematic level, it’s a brilliant use of atmosphere: the central family occupy a cabin on the fringes of a haunted wood (Canada, standing in for New England), replete with fog and winding, uncertain paths that lead farther from civilization. The film’s well-placed moments of violence and slow-building tension found themselves within the hysterical underpinnings of Puritan religion, making the entire film as much a rumination on sin and salvation as it is a fairly straightforward haunting narrative, the fear of the witch in the woods. It is an effective, intelligent, and somewhat inaccessible art-house film – a film that deals more with the vagaries of belief and superstition than it does with actual scares. There are long sections of silence punctuated by dialogue that has characters speaking in a dialect steeped in religious tradition – a tradition that is never fully elucidated, with Biblically founded terrors that are never fully explained. The Witch is practically a slice of life, with little explanation for much of its horror. It is many things, and all of them interesting, but it is not the horror film we have come to expect.

The Witch both is and is not a horror film. It hits on specific tropes, but does not spend much time in examining their cause within the world of the film. The family is ejected from their colony, forced to eke out their existence in isolation, yet we never learn why they were removed in the first place. Nor is it terribly clear how isolated they really are – we know that they still trade to a degree, and that the colony is still accessible, if a day’s ride away. The film introduces concepts of the demonic possession of women and children, communion with Satan, blood sacrifice, and witches’ Sabbaths, yet the religious underpinnings of these beliefs are developed only through cryptic dialogue and never outright exposition. These are not modern people haunted by an age-old evil at odds with contemporary belief structures, as in films like Paranormal Activity, but a family steeped in a cultural tradition where these things are very real. The Witch advertises itself as a “New England folktale,” and it is something like listening to a folktale from an antecedent culture we no longer live in. The Witch does indeed hit generic horror markers, but from the perspective of foundational horror myths themselves. It looks back in time to treat of terror from the source.

The horror genre has gone through numerous permutations in its long, complex history. Even if one passes by horror’s literary and folktale antecedents, the changes in genre from the advent of film to the contemporary period mean that some traditional horror is almost unrecognizable as scary to us now. Horror is steeped in the bending of tradition – it possesses its own rules, which it subsequently breaks, and then enforces new rules based on the breaking of the old ones. In the most simplistic terms, horror brings up the fears of the culture from which it stems, often altered or manipulated so that our monsters are but amalgams of our collective terrors. Horror is the collective cultural nightmare and even if we don’t always find it particularly scary, we always see something of ourselves within both the victims and the monsters. In this context, what are we to make of The Witch?

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One of the through-lines of The Witch is fear not just of the Other, but of the female Other. Female monstrosity is as old as the horror genre, and The Witch seeks for some of the historical antecedents of the fear of the feminine. Early in the film, the audience learns that witches are real and that they do all of the things that old Puritan stories say they do: stealing unbaptized children, dancing naked at midnight, having sex with Satan, transforming their shapes, leading men (or boys) astray. From our cultural perspective, The Witch reinforces the continued contemporary fear of the feminine – the witch (one of them at least) is an ugly monstrosity, the very symbol of the monstrous feminine. The film does not treat of the viciousness of witch trials or accusations, nor does it account for the foundational fears of powerful (and sexual) women that made the Puritans so very hysterical. Witch lore is rich in manipulative misogyny and power dynamics, yet The Witch avoids this dialogue in favor of a family drama driven by externalized fear and internal strife. At the same time, the film provides a catharsis of a sort, as the teenage girl at the edge of womanhood chooses to reject her father’s repressive religion and ally herself to the (feminine) darkness. The film does not fall into the error of proclaiming itself as feminist or anti-feminist, but rather presents a complex, multi-layered narrative that presents itself as an examination into the foundations of contemporary horror.

The horror genre has been going through yet another shift in focus. A genre often – though not exclusively – dominated by patriarchal prerogative, it now has begun to focalize through the female experience. Women in horror have often been monsters and have often been victims, but rarely have they been the driving narrative force. Rarely have they possessed the camera, either behind it or in front of it, and so films like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, It Follows, Teeth, and, now, The Witch are unique in their focus on the feminine experience, both from within the characters themselves and from their external participation patriarchal structure. Even the original version of Paranormal Activity, a film that arguably began the most recent low-budget, low maintenance horror craze, was directed through the experience of a woman faced with male disbelief and then fear. The Witch, though far from a feminist work, adds another piece to the puzzle.

In returning to the origins of American horror, the film places itself in a unique and problematic position vis-a-vis its audience. The audience with which I saw The Witch was not particularly receptive to what the film was trying to achieve. While they were relatively respectful during the first half of the film, the building of tension and atmosphere began to give way to boredom. The people beside, behind, and in front began to talk, and then to giggle during silences or periods with long stretches of dialogue. The lack of jump scares, of any real recognizable “horror” tropes, evidently got to them. By the time the film had ended, both my friend and myself were seething with anger because we had been robbed of our cinematic experience.

I think this experience was indicative of a failing not of The Witch, but of it’s marketing, and of the way that critics have treated it. The Witch is not a horror film in the contemporary sense – it is an introspective drama, a folktale with horror elements that nonetheless cannot and should not occupy the same space as Paranormal Activity. It is about a culture that you must have some background with going in, as well as a willingness to pay attention to the film’s structuring of religious superstition. To offer this film to audiences with the promise of “the scariest film ever made” is to set yourself up for exactly the problem I had: an audience that grows increasingly frustrated with the film failing to fulfill new genre conventions. And so the film suffers, along with those who wish to experience The Witch as it actually stands, and not as critics imply that it’s supposed to stand.

Even as critics tout the film, audience response has been overwhelmingly negative. The complaint, I think, is not so much that The Witch is a bad film, but that rather it does not appeal to the things that many audiences want it to appeal to. It is an art-house film, applicable to those who want to investigate terror in the silences, the power of Calvinist religion, the fear of sin, the origins of horror. This is a world in which witches are real, in which children can accuse their elders of communing with the devil, in which Lucifer can appear in the form of a black goat, in which freedom comes at the price of your soul. This is the world of the Puritans, a world of darkness and real terror, but a world that is full of silence, of struggle, of random death and rampant dedication to a very strict system of belief. It is not a world of things that go bump in the night.

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I believe that The Witch will ultimately receive its due and will be understood for the thing that it is and not the thing that it is not. At the very least its critically enforced popularity asks greater questions about what scares us as a culture, both where those fears came from and where they might be going. The future of the horror genre is bright, it seems, even as we wander in the darkness.

The Love Witch (2016)

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Every once in a while, a film comes along that defies audience expectations, even when the audience is more than prepared to indulge in whatever it offers. The Love Witch, from writer/director Anna Biller, is such a film: a gleefully malevolent celebration of thrillers and horror films from the 1960s and 70s…and so much more.

The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch who leaves San Francisco after the death of her ex-husband to start life anew in a small California town. Her project? To find a real man, one who embodies all that (she believes) masculinity should be. To do so, Elaine has elected to use “love magic” to become every male fantasy, to embody every dream and desire that an individual man wants, to fulfill his every wish. And she does, seducing a local college professor (Clive Ashborn), a friend’s husband (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and police detective Griff (Gian Keys). The problem is that Elaine is just too good with her love magic, and the bodies begin to pile up with every lover Elaine takes.

Summarizing The Love Witch oversimplifies it, though, and ignores the extreme aestheticism and referentiality that the film relies on for its ideological outlook. The Love Witch is spectacularly subtle in its lack of subtlety. Elaine waxes eloquent about her philosophy surrounding love and witchcraft, much to the dismay of her friend Trish (Laura Widdell), who finds her attitudes strikingly anti-feminist. But Elaine’s speeches, like The Love Witch itself, conceals a deft sleight of hand as it reinforces and then punctures the male ego. Men are treated as almost childlike, slightly boring, basically useless, whose inability to look at women as people is a failing that they can’t overcome and that will ultimately destroy them. As Professor King sobs about never being able to find a woman to match his fantasy and his pain in remaining unfulfilled, the film punishes his view of women as objects simply by indulging him to the fullest extent.

Elaine’s deceased husband, remembered in voiceover, berates her for not losing weight, for not keeping the house clean enough, for not getting dinner on the table fast enough. In attempting to fulfill his fantasies of what she should be, Elaine ultimately kills him. She internalizes her husband’s psychological and emotional abuse, reconstituting herself as the ultimate female monster. Elaine’s extreme femininity destroys men by fulfilling their desires, by establishing an extreme gender binary in which they will never be “man enough” for the woman that they’ve created. She is a sort of female Frankenstein’s Monster, a creation of masculine hubris, who turns upon her creators and offers them everything they want.

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It soon becomes apparent that all the women of the film are struggling under the weight of male expectations. But the women gain power in taking possession of their own objectification, rendering it a source of strength and directing back towards the dull (and singularly unattractive) men who demand so much from them. The male fantasy is reconstituted as a female one, the finding of a “real man,” with punishment meted out to those who do not fulfill that fantasy. Elaine is not a cypher or an image. She is a full person, wrapped the trappings of seductive femininity – thick makeup, a long black wig, garter belts and stockings – and is fully at home and invested in those trappings as part of her identity. She seeks a man to fulfill her fantasies, to provide her with the completion that men demand from her.

The Love Witch coats its complex battle of the sexes in a lush, referential mis-en-scene. Everything from costuming and makeup to the striking color coordination of its interior design, lighting, and photography interacts so as to produce a sense of a film out of time. While borrowing some of its aesthetic from numerous 1950s and 60s Technicolor films, The Love Witch produces a complex dialogue among those films, undermining their often anti-feminist bent by taking some of their arguments to an extreme.

Direct visual references abound: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds appears in the rear-projected driving sequences and the arrival of a “witch” in a small California town, a la Melanie Daniels. The plot nods to Bell, Book, and Candle, the 1958 film starring Kim Novak as a Greenwich Village witch who uses her powers to entrap Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo is another visual and thematic reference point: Elaine fulfills male fantasy in much the same way that Kim Novak’s Madeleine is forced to. But The Love Witch twists the theme, giving Elaine and her fellow witches the power in the relationships, becoming male fantasies only to exact control over those ideals. The shaping of a woman to masculine desires becomes a source of female power, not enslavement. Where Madeleine is punished for her deception, Elaine evades punishment, taking full possession of her sexual and emotional identity.

The Love Witch is a dark and sumptuous film that demands a viewer with a certain experience of retro cinema. It interacts so much with a very specific past that its cinematic antecedents – and therefore its meaning – may easily be lost in the shuffle. It is the male gaze, male control, that brings destruction and death. Elaine becomes every image of femininity, and by controlling that image, destroys the men who demand it. The film has a cinematic purity, so conversant with its own influences, yet so different from all of them that it manages to transcend the labels of pastiche, nostalgia, and parody. The Love Witchmuch like Elaine, both is and is not exactly what it appears to be. And there are very few films that can lay claim to that.