By Ryan Marshall
The Director’s Profile
The “style over substance” argument seems to be a never-ending one, and yet few have made a better case for “style as substance” than Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish writer/director, born December 5, 1969, has hardly a handful of feature and short films to her name, and yet each is marked with the sort of intuitive mastery of form as exquisite poetry that one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, at least in this precise variation.
Ramsay began her career with a trio of ambitious short films: 1996’s “Small Deaths” and “Kill the Day,” and then “Gasman” two years later. In 1999, Ramsay made her feature debut with the marvelous “Ratcatcher,” a haunting portrait of a child growing up in early 1970s Glasgow who must confront grown-up guilt in the event of his best friend drowning. She followed this up three years later with “Morvern Callar,” perhaps her most underrated effort, which stars a hypnotic Samantha Morton in the titular role, that of a young woman who flees to Almeria with her best friend following the sudden suicide of her boyfriend.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 2011 that Ramsay returned with “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” a portrait of a mother’s (Tilda Swinton) fractured psyche in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, which proved to be worth the wait not only for the artist’s faithful audience but also for her own creative well-being, as she had been developing an adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” (a project she aborted after encountering unnegotiable creative differences) in between “Callar” and “Kevin.”
For all the struggles to maintain artistic integrity (another unrealized project being “Jane Got a Gun,” which was eventually directed by Gavin O’Connor after Ramsay walked off the set), Amazon Studies has come forth to distribute — at last — what one can assume will almost definitely be the director’s next film. “You Were Never Really Here” is scheduled to be released sometime later this year and is sure to be a challenging, hypnotic knock-out much like the director’s past work. When it comes to thorough meditations of grief, growing pains, life and death alike, she is unparalleled: a skilled world-builder unafraid to meld the deeply emotional with the subtly intellectual.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller may be one of the cinema’s last truly exceptional auteurs. Sure, the term itself is thrown around a lot, and sure, it’s particularly challenging to register as one when dealing almost exclusively in homage. Somewhere and somehow, Biller — born and raised in Los Angeles — finds a way, but regardless of the individual viewer’s tolerance for the director’s unabashed parading of influences and intent, her voice is positively one of a kind.
Nearly an entire decade may have separated Biller’s feature debut (2007’s “Viva”) and her latest oddball offering, but the same powerfully progressive voice remains unmistakably intact. “The Love Witch” concerns, as you could probably guess, a contemporary witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) pursuing a suitable male companion by means of black magic. Holed up as the new tenant in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion, she practices making potions, but as we learn from her voice-over narration in the coastal cruise intro, Elaine’s still got a lot to learn.
The heroine’s quest is initially driven by the desire to be desired — preferably by all who should happen upon her but more specifically by men. The trail of gullible bastards she leaves in her wake — including but certainly not limited to suave University professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a police inspector (Gian Keys) perplexed by the prospect of a tampon submerged in a bottle of piss, and even her own ex-husband — ultimately leads the witch on a path to reclaiming individuality that is as hysterical as it is genuinely insightful.
Firmly rooted in a bygone era (or several), the film features, among other seductive delights, exceedingly over-the-top performances, vintage costumes and décor, and music borrowed from the likes of classic gialli “A Lizard and a Woman’s Skin” and “The Fifth Cord” (both scores courtesy of Ennio Morricone). And M. David Mullen’s photography is spot-on in recreating even the most seemingly insignificant ticks of ‘60s/‘70s occult-sleaze cinema to a tee. It’s a seamless evocation of everything it claims to be, but there’s much more to this beatific brew than an ornate toast to the silver screen of yesteryear.
Biller would rather her indignant criticisms fester on the surface, which allows for a remarkably articulate confrontation of gender stereotypes that feels empathetic where it could have just as easily been perceived as preachy. “The Love Witch” neglects to give off the impression of a work influenced too much by invasive contempt, instead seeking to explore equality by way of humility. A medieval-style wedding late in the game, complete with faux duels and a puppet-toting jester, holds the key to the filmmaker’s stance on both passion and passiveness alike. Elaine’s maturation, twisted as it is, is hardly glorified; in fact, she’s just as damned as her predominantly male victims.
It’s easy to surrender to the film’s campy, hallucinatory charms but Biller’s decision to balance her immanent cinematic fetishisms with such a biting, subversive critique is the true stroke of genius.
Getting lost in “Witch’s” candy-colored ocean is one thing, extracting individually invaluable observations is another. Once again, the filmmaker reaches into the past in order to look to the future and the culmination of this particular excursion speaks for itself, loud and clear. It announces its spectacular existence until it knows that it doesn’t have to, and if this is indicative of where we’re headed, we might just be in good hands.
Ryan Marshall is a Communications & New Media major focusing on cinematic journalism. You can also see his writing at podcastingthemsoftly.com