In The Love Witch’s campy, technicolor universe, there’s little more to live for than love. At least, that’s what protagonist Elaine Parks claims in her many voice-overs to the audience throughout the course of the film. After being emotionally abused and taken for granted by her ex-husband, Jerry, Elaine sets out to find the love she believes she deserves—by any means necessary. Her dangerous obsession with love and equating sex to power leads her down a potion-soaked path of destruction. Once the audience looks past the dreamy aesthetic that director Anna Biller cultivated so well, the evil lurking beneath the surface of Elaine’s quest for love appears through the fog of bright pink tea rooms and glowing red burlesque clubs. The origins of this evil, however, are not as clear.
Elaine serves as a caricature of both patriarchal society’s “ideal woman” and the warped sex positive feminist. While she possesses all of the positive traits—conventionally attractive, “knows her place,” shows enough vulnerability but is still confident—she also possesses all of the negative traits—self-interested, manipulative, deceptive. This ideal woman is essentially an inauthentic and apathetic social chameleon, constantly changing herself to fit the needs and wants of the men around her while claiming that she’s empowered. She only keeps relationships if they can benefit her and ultimately help her reach her goal for finding idealized, over-romanticized “love.”
Witchcraft is front and center in The Love Witch, but becomes intertwined with Elaine’s perceptions of love and sex. Elaine claims that the day Jerry left her was the day that she died, but she was reborn as a witch and came to accept her true power, dabbling in spells, hexes and potions. One of the most striking symbols is the recurrence of the tarot card three of swords, often depicted as three swords piercing a heart. This card, of the Minor Arcana, acts as an omen of heartbreak and emotional turmoil. The three of swords first makes an appearance at the beginning of the movie and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Elaine’s view on men, as revealed to her friend Trish, is that they are fragile and vulnerable who are in need of the right woman to provide them with care and bring out the best in them. She believes that sex magick is the best way to amplify love magick since men will not love women if sex is not involved. Trish incredulously tells Elaine was most viewers’ thoughts: “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” While Elaine brushes off Trish’s claim as a misunderstanding of the power that her magick gives her, it quickly becomes clear that Elaine’s self-worth is reliant on men’s perception of her.
Although she’s encouraged by members of her coven, particularly her good friend Barbara and Gahan (the leader of the coven whom Elaine clearly detests), she is warned that love magick is serious and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Despite these warnings, Elaine is ruthless in her quest for love, tricking her victims into drinking love potions and using sex magick on them to manipulate their emotions. Of course, the effects are always adverse. Her first victim Wayne, a literature professor who reminds her of her ex-husband Jerry, becomes clingy and emotional, earning disgust and apathy from Elaine in response. The three of swords appears in Elaine’s reading at Wayne’s vacation home, and shortly after he dies of heart failure because he’s too emotionally stunted to handle his “love” for her.
Her second victim is Trish’s husband Richard, who Elaine seduces while Trish is away at a convention for work. Richard quickly becomes obsessed with Elaine and falls into a deep depression when she becomes unsatisfied with his behavior and breaks off the relationship. He drinks constantly, sitting by the phone in hopes that Elaine will call, a tarot deck on his desk–the three of swords appears yet again. Feeling hopeless in his post-Elaine world, he kills himself, with Trish being the one who finds the body and has to deal with the emotional aftermath of her husband’s death.
Her third and final victim is a detective named Griff, who has been assigned to look into the disappearance and death of Wayne, who had been reported missing by a colleague. His sleuthing leads him to Elaine, who is hostile to him at first but later sees him as a potential lover. They go on a date, and in a bizarre turn of events come upon a Renaissance Faire in the forest being put on by several members of Elaine’s coven. The Renaissance players invite Griff and Elaine to participate in a mock wedding, which they agree to, dressing in Renaissance garb and joining in on the festivities. As Griff’s investigation continues, all signs lead to Elaine’s direct involvement in Wayne’s death, but he chooses to ignore it because he cares for her.
Trish discovers that Elaine was Richard’s mistress, and, after angrily attacking her in Elaine’s apartment, goes to the police with items from Elaine’s altar as evidence. Griff sees Elaine’s true character, and in a confrontation at a burlesque club that Elaine and her coven members frequent, Griff expresses disgust over Elaine’s actions, telling her that she’s selfish and no man will ever love her as much as she desires from him. Unable to handle this criticism, Elaine deflects, telling Griff that he doesn’t understand love and that she wouldn’t have to use sex magick and love potions if men would love women for themselves instead of putting conditions on their affections.
The patrons of the club, already portrayed as hostile to witches, attack Elaine over the death of Wayne. Griff manages to get the two of them out and back to Elaine’s apartment. She patches him up, attempting to win his affections again, but when she offers him the love potion, he throws it on the ground. She then realizes that he doesn’t love her, and that no amount of love will ever be enough for her. Horrified by this, she grabs a dagger from her altar, the three of swords appearing yet again, and stabs him in the heart.
While her actions are reprehensible, Elaine tells the audience throughout the course of The Love Witch that men are the direct reason for her behavior. From emotional abuse and abandonment from her first husband, Jerry to constant belittling and criticism from her father to ritual abuse by Gahan, she claims by making herself into an ideal woman she wouldn’t give men a reason to abuse or take advantage of her. Elaine he would use her sexuality to maintain power in the relationship while also finding someone to love her for her personality.
At the end of the film, Anna Biller leaves the audience to question the authenticity of societal constructions of love and the role of sex in romantic relationships, I think that equally deserving of our consideration is the origin of Elaine’s monstrosity. Has Elaine always been a monster, the wicked witch that frequents nightmares and fairytales? Or is she more akin to Frankenstein’s monster, torn apart and then put back together as a perverse monument to politicized sexuality and idealized womanhood, unleashed to wreak havoc on the world?
In the end, Elaine’s worst enemy is herself. The persona that she’s created, the fantasy world she constructs for herself, all lead to her emotional demise. When Trish laments that she didn’t help Richard more, even though she knew he was hurting, Elaine seems smug knowing that it was she who put Richard into that condition. Even though Trish is still mourning the death of her husband, Elaine wastes no time in bragging about how well her relationship with Griff is going. Her disregard for the feelings and lives of others causes her to make more enemies than allies, as her beauty and charm can only cover her nefarious intentions for so long. Elaine manipulates and destroys relationships, essentially commits date-rape, and murders in the name of love. The Love Witch proves the strength of feminist horror by forcing the audience to face the grim reality on unrealistic expectations of love and sex.