Anna Biller, 2007
Has any cultural figure been as celebrated within the female gaze as the witch? She is the ultimate feminine monster. Hair typically long. Sometimes clad in black or variably in dainty lace, eighteenth century Puritan garb, decadent gowns, jeans and a leather jacket, or, à la Suspiria, a dancer’s leotard in the heat of ritualistic performance. Cunning and precocious, no matter her style the witch is a sex symbol to reflect women’s own desires and perceptions of beauty. Men, after all, tend to fear her.
In the 2010s, the witch ignited the cultural zeitgeist as a figure of political rebirth, of women reclaiming power that had been stolen from them for centuries (so strong was this image that the popular protest slogan, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” has by 2021 become an internet meme). In 2016, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch caught a bit of this lightning in its technicolour bottle. Its addition to the witch canon was Elaine, a beautiful man-killer cruising down an oceanside highway: a touch Giallo, a sprinkle of pulp. The film’s lusciously curated aesthetic aligned perfectly with the thriving modern feminist movement, much of it unravelling online, where instagrammable visuals were as necessary to the charge as gender politics. With The Love Witch, Biller created a big screen dream for feminist pop culture, a mirror through which young women could project their cultural interests, aesthetic sensibilities, and political imaginations all at once.
The witch, then, is an alter ego of sorts. She is someone who can be summoned from a hidden interior place, a place not often excavated in young women. You might feel powerless in your regular life, but through an alternate persona you can find a voice. In “The Uncanny”, Freud posits the “double” as a visual representation of the darker parts of one’s psyche. This double can take many forms: alter ego, online persona, a Mr. Hyde creature, a witch. Thus the witch is a psychological manifestation as well as a political character or popular monster. She is an alluring figure, coaxing us to indulge in the darkness we so easily repress. The witch in her current imagination is sexy, intelligent and destructive. She typifies a brand of beauty that appeals to the female gaze, to a desire to embody femininity without sacrificing power.
The witch is a compelling female alter ego, though not alone. In 2007, Biller released her debut feature, Viva, a film that is also interested in women’s hidden doubles. The protagonist is Barbie, a dutiful housewife in the early 1970s who embarks on a journey of sexual exploration after she splits from her husband, and whose rebirth comes not in the form of a witch but in “Viva”, a femme fatale who exists in stark contrast to the deferential, devoted Barbie. When Barbie transforms into Viva, she is able to live her life with newfound confidence. Her rejection of male desire (or at least the male desire of her husband) is what creates her succubus. “I turn you on? I turn everybody on,” Viva tells a pursuer at an orgy towards the end of the film.
Biller has stated that her mission as a filmmaker is to create a “cinema of visual pleasure for women”. This thesis runs contra to much of her critical reception. Although largely positive, when writing about Viva many critics highlighted the film’s riff on sexploitation pictures popular in the 60s and 70s, such as the movies of Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen! to name a couple). Lauding it both as an ode to these films and a satirical subversion of them, these criticisms tend to bely Biller’s “visual pleasure for women” principle. In Viva, each scene is impeccably curated, the clothing custom-made specifically to reflect the beauty of the era, each object of mise-en-scène forming an altar to the aesthetic. Within this world of aesthetic adoration, the duality of Barbie/Viva is explored. Barbie reads “Decorating with Crochet” and wears dainty blush teddies around the house. Viva reads “The Sensuous Woman” and drapes her body in sheer gold cloth, aware of her effect on the men around her. In all her sensual splendour, her sartorial choices are straight out of a young girl’s dream of what it means to be luxurious; her sexuality comes not from a straight man’s imagination, but decidedly a woman’s.
Biller’s debut is located in something familiar yet unfamiliar. Viewers will probably recognise the retro aesthetics and recall vintage Playboy magazines, yet the lens is feminine and idolatrous of a specific aura, not objectifying as one would expect from the sexploitation genre. This is because Biller is an expert at exploring the hidden crevices of female desire; she unearths them to create something beautiful.
Biller's debut introduced two things to the world: a commitment to visual pleasure for the female gaze, and a desire to explore the doubles that haunt modern femininity. Lovingly, her work animates these alter egos: femme fatales and vixens in Viva, and later witches in The Love Witch. Culture in 2016 was receptive to these explorations, with political trends spawning interest in the figure of the witch and her connection to the darker side of women’s power. But it was Viva that laid the groundwork, asking viewers: who is your Viva? What are her interests? Whom does she desire? What does she wear?