Noah Berlatsky / May 14, 2020
“Men are like children; they’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want,” declares sultry young witch Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) to her friend Trish (Laura Waddell) in Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch. The conversation takes place in the Victorian Tearoom, a women only coffee shop with pink on pink décor. A harpist plucks languidly in the background, and Elaine wears an enormous flowered pink hat as she talks with breezy intensity about what men want and how women must give it to them. Feminine sexuality sloshes about the screen like the tea in the cups. It’s flamboyant. It’s over-saturated. It’s camp.
Or is it? Biller has been outspokenly dismissive of male critics who link her work to ‘70s exploitation like Russ Meyer, or to a winking aesthetic of not meaning it. The film is about how Elaine uses love spells to attract men to love her. But once the spells take home, the men become irritatingly needy, and Elaine abandons them, under circumstances that often lead mysteriously to their deaths. Elaine’s seductions often involve sensual/silly strip teases, blatant nudity, and innuendo—some critics have seen it as soliciting bawdy giggles. But Biller insists, in a Sight and Sound interview, “I didn’t want to get anyone who was interested in camp or camping it up at all,” and she rejects “the word sexploitation, or exploitation, or sleaze, or trash, or any word that’s tawdry or debased on purpose.”
Camp, according to Susan Sontag, is “a seriousness that fails,” but a seriousness that is redeemed by “the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” Biller’s Victorian Tearoom, and indeed her film as a whole, are shot through with exaggerated hats, fantastic dialogue, and passionately naïve pink. But, understandably, the director rejects the idea that these highly stylized elements indicate failure.
Part of the problem here is the definition. Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” is the most famous and influential description of camp, but it’s not necessarily the most insightful treatment. In particular, Sontag does not engage with, and at points outright dismisses, the connection between camp and queer communities, and between camp and the closet. By doing so, she removes much of camp’s political possibility. Camp becomes a way for (straight) people to laugh at tastelessness, rather than a way for (queer) people to laugh in solidarity.
In 1990’s Epistemology of the Closet, in contrast, Eve Sedgwick offers a definition of camp that is more closely tied to liberation and subversion. Sedgwick suggests that camp is a description of art in which the viewer—especially the queer viewer—is moved to ask, “What if the right audience for this were exactly me?”
The Victorian Tea Room scene, read in this way, is camp not because it is overdramatic, or self-parodic, but rather because it joyfully broadcasts queer possibilities. “The whole world doesn’t revolve around men’s wants!” Trish exclaims. That could be an ironized, semi-parodic sexploitation smirk. But it could also be a woman asking the woman in front of her to pay attention to other erotic possibilities and desires that don’t involve men. Part of the energy and delight of the scene is that it urges queer viewers to say, “What if the women talking intensely about love and patriarchy in a flagrantly pink, women only space are in fact talking to and about me?”
The camp in the scene is not just in its heightened same-sex feminization, but in the way it evokes earlier films and eras. The vivid red of Elaine’s Mustang could be a nod to the bright reds that terrorize the title character in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). The stylized retro costumes and décor recall Douglas Sirk—a director who Biller admires, and whose own movies are camp documents in themselves. Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows is about a widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), who falls in love with a younger man, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), to the horror of her friends and children. Hudson is now known to have been gay, and the out-of-proportion disapprobation of the community resonates on current viewing as a metaphor for homophobia. The famous last scene of the film, a deer looking through a wall-sized bank of windows, is an image of otherness, virility, and cuteness—the viewer watches a stand-in for a queer viewer, and can say, with Sedgwick, “this movie is made for me.”
Part of the camp charge in watching All That Heaven Allows is the way that nostalgia intensifies, or makes possible, a queer gaze. The demand that Cary shut herself off sexually forever after her husband’s death appears preposterous because that’s no longer a demand made by our world. The deer looks not just through the window, but through time. Gender roles aren’t like that any more, and part of the camp exhilaration is the recognition that the movie was speaking to a future we now inhabit, where Cary Scott and Rock Hudson didn’t have to keep their desires in the closet.
Biller, for her part, uses the look of the past to cut her characters adrift in history, which also leaves them adrift in gender roles. Elaine floats and shimmies through burlesque houses, Renaissance fairs, hippie one-night stands, nude Satanic rituals, and affairs with boring business men. The time could be the ‘50s or the ‘60s, or an alternate present-day 2010s, where witches are common and persecuted, where magic maybe works. It’s a dream landscape in which it makes as much sense to wear a gargantuan hat as to leave a bottle with a tampon on the grave of your lover. Rules of proper behavior are fluid and constantly transgressed in a camp fugue of delighted, queer familiarity.
Some limits remain, though. The sexual tension between Elaine and Trish, for example, is squashed almost as quickly as it is raised. When Trish first sees Elaine, who is renting an apartment from her, she exclaims, “You’re so pretty!” But then she adds, “Oh I didn’t mean anything. I’m married and everything.” Elaine hesitates for an awkward pause (all the dialogue is punctuated by awkward pauses) before replying, “No. I didn’t think anything.”
The camp recognition of female/female eroticism is immediately disavowed. Nothing is meant; nothing is thought. Desire is funneled into conventional channels, which means that Elaine has sex with Trish’s husband, not with Trish herself, and that Trish, in a late scene, tries on Elaine’s make-up and wig because she wants to be the love witch, rather than because she wants to be with the love witch.
Elaine’s fantasies are constrained by heterosexuality in other ways as well. Witchcraft in the film is erotic power; it’s a way for women to assert their own desires, and impose them on men. But in the real counterculture, sexual liberation of women was often just an excuse for sexual harassment by men, and so it is among witches. The leader of the coven, Gahan (Jared Sanford), is a bearded pontificator who lectures women about their true womanly nature, explaining to them that they should perform striptease acts in a burlesque club. The Satanic initiation ritual he sets up involves him groping and perhaps raping new initiates. In one scene, he gropes Elaine’s breast before she pushes him away. Male violence squats even at the center of what is supposed to be female power.
Patriarchy also haunts Elaine’s affairs. Using her witchcraft, she fascinates men. But as she takes the stereotypically male role of free-swinging philanderer, the men are forced into the stereotypically female role of needy lovers. “He became just like a woman, crying at every little thing,” Elaine pouts about one of her conquests. Her witchcraft gives her the upper hand over men, but it retains the dynamic whereby relationships are about who has the upper hand over who. Elaine feminizes the men she sleeps with, and then is disappointed, because under patriarchy whoever is feminized is repulsive.
The dynamic here mirrors that of the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Baby Face, in which a young ambitious woman, Lily Powers (Stanwyck), uses sex to advance her career, climbing the corporate hierarchy in a high rise bank building. Lily—somewhat confusedly inspired by the writing of Nietzsche—eventually realizes that material success without love is hollow, and gives her money to save the guy she loves.
Elaine doesn’t care about wealth, but her rapacious pursuit of love lands her in a similar bind. To be empowered means to despise the men she dominates, and her last act in the film is to plunge a phallic knife into the chest of her last disappointing lover. Where Lily is refeminized by self-sacrifice, Elaine is masculinized by murder. In both cases, though, stereotypical gender roles close around them, negating or paralyzing camp escape.
Camp is a utopian mode: it offers an alternative to the dead weight of natural convention by positing a world in which the marginalized are centered and celebrated. The Love Witch flirts with that kind of recognition and that kind of world. But ultimately its vision is more tragic than euphoric. The odd, alienated dialogue and the stylized costumes and sets don’t create a campy, artificial, liberated world. Rather they reference and acknowledge an alienated, artificial world that still permeates the present—just as in Marnie, where the main character’s every thought and action is determined by a trauma she doesn’t remember. The Love Witch is camp insofar as it prompts women, and anyone uncomfortable in patriarchy, to ask, “what if this were made for me?” But it is also, in a less hopeful vein, a depiction of what it means to be trapped in a tea room made of the past and gender, misogyny and love.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.