In this season passing between Beltane and Midsummer, the phrase All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals emerges often. As the earth heats up, so do we, and certain Pagans move into the sacred season of sexuality – and all the hot, sweaty Pagan festivals – with sweaty fervor. While reality has intruded more and more into the Pagan self-perception as sexually free and enlightened, for the most part, Pagan-identified people hold to that collective belief and all the bawdy jokes that go with it.Yet for those of the witchcraft set that watched filmmaker Anna Biller’s the Love Witch and perhaps read her partner’s book the Art of Seduction before or after viewing, there may be reason to pause. Biller succeeded wildly in this sophomore effort – the conceit of a vintage film with subtle anachronisms destroyed at the appearance of a single cell phone, the examination of narcissism in both women and men, holding men’s emotionality and accountability (or lack thereof) up to the light, the point for point steps in the art of seduction Eleanor uses on each of her victims, the deliberately wooden acting to highlight the way all but one or two of the characters took part in a sexual charade – the list could go on. The Love Witch demands conversation.
Says Eleanor to her neighbor in the first act of the movie: “According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.” Thus begins the story of a woman’s quest for love – her quarry the object of her contempt.
For those that practice certain traditions of Wicca, Biller spent time with some real life Wiccans in the course of her research for the film. The film shows a skyclad ritual, a symbolic Great Rite, individuals spells, and even has witches dancing around a fire to an “Eko! Eko!”chant. A romantic/seduction sequences even had a Rennaissance fair style mock wedding.
Among the many things Biller’s film explores is that modern Pagans have our own toxic sexuality. and range of good people and bad people. Goddess-centered religions that tie women to their fertility cycles, while men’s “sacred cycles” are roles played throughout life, remain patriarchal. Cut through the mythological poetry and look close enough – it might be, at times, a more compassionate patriarchy – but it’s still just patriarchy.
Biller is not Wiccan or a practitioner as far as the public knows. Yet her observations about sex, manipulation, and power at its worst within Paganism hits home. The audience sees the look on Eleanor’s face when her former high priest grabs her breast – even though she has already killed men for less, the power dynamic within the coven prevents her from handling the lecherous priest in a fitting manner. When, in a burlesque club scene, this same priest lectures these initiates, dripping with pomposity and deep cynicism that he masks as wisdom. Yet the words he says most American Wiccans have heard men fear women and seek to control female sexuality.
This character takes it that step further by classifying sexual control as a game. These women are told to control men with their sexuality, and that magic is part of controlling them. Later we see these girls, performing a weirdly celestial burlesque to a crowd of confused-but-leering men. The same words so many of us have heard and believed were intended to free us from the bonds of patriarchal society, coming from the lips of this priest, sound just as patriarchal, presenting sexuality as a means of manipulation, rather than as a means of freedom.
The relationship between the witches and their outer community contains the tension of two types of patriarchy: the one where the “nice” rules maintain the status quo/ostensible good, and the ones where the toxic side of sexuality leads the way.
Eleanor herself embodies toxic sexuality on one end of the poison spectrum, seeming to steadfastly follow the rules of the Art of Seduction. As author Greene advises, she finds a target, she gets them to think of her constantly, she gives them their fantasy and then she moves on before the boring and responsible parts of love manifest. Eleanor repeats this cycle on each of her victims, adjusting to the next man’s archetype. Her seductions come with a veneer of authentic witchcraft: witch’s bottles, flying ointment, hallucinogenic potions (kids, do not use high doses of Jimson weed without a trained and experienced shaman’s supervision) and much to my delight, tarot cards used correctly for the context of the movie.
With each seduction, the stakes get higher, the death more bizarre. Eleanor says she wants to be loved – but it becomes clear that what she’s after isn’t love at all, and even sex to her is only a means to her narcissistic supply. When she speaks of men being more emotional than women, it becomes clear that she can see this because she herself has no real feelings. What she attributes to magic – a man being killed by his own emotions – is really a response to the way she lowered his defenses and then turned cold, driving her jilted lovers to the end of madness. Any doubt that she may be working her wiles to men’s death by accident disappears completely by the time she meets the widow of a victim for high tea; she talks happily of her new affair in response to this woman’s obvious pain.
Ultimately, Eleanor’s victims aren’t the men that she kills, they are the women she hurts in the process. In some ways, all the men she seduces are, if not deserving of their fate, not worthy of the viewer’s sympathy. The men are all to some degree also narcissists. The death scene of her first victim brings to the surface the common issue of male entitlement to female nurturing. In another, what drives the man to his death is his Madonna/Whore complex about his own wife, combined with her own patriarchally suppressed sexuality. By the end, the final battle of the movie is hubris versus hubris – an old patriarchy versus a new one.
Billings gave enough to explore in this film it merits multiple viewings, both as a work of art and as a paean to the Art of Seduction. While not appreciated with the fervor of Practical Magic, this movie belongs in a special category with Anthony Schaffer and Robin Hardy’s the Wicker Man as a horror film where the villain is culture itself. This grants a cynical view on sex, yes, but also brings home the unwelcome message: most of us still live in a patriarchy, embedded so deep in our subconscious that even when we engage in Goddess-centered practices, we still veer back to a patriarchal dynamic.