Cinematic Cosmetics – The Love Witch by Anna Biller
I’ll confess right away – I love movies (though I loathe the term cinephile…gross). I watch them a lot – I’m the kind of person who can’t focus on one thing at a time so I usually have a movie or tv show rolling in the background as I’m working on something. Now, as with any visual media, film is full of interesting aesthetic choices – including cosmetic ones. I’d like to highlight some of my favourite beauty looks in film, starting with a movie I watched recently.
The Love Witch is a 2016 Horror-Comedy that follows the young, widowed witch Elaine as she uses any means necessary to find the love she deserves. Director Anna Biller’s creative control is meticulous, with costumes and decor made by her to match the 60s pulp novel style that permeates the film. The makeup in particular reflects this kitschy romantic aesthetic, featuring more or less spackle-like base makeup with bright pink blush and blue eyeshadow, huge false eyelashes and ultra-thick black eyeliner.
Elaine’s outfits in the film are consistently colour-matched – in the first scene, her outfit, car and suitcases are all bright red. The title is imposed over her shimmery, turqoise-eyeshadow coated eye as distressing horror movie-esque music plays in the background. She really looks like one of those vintage paper dolls, or the heroine of a sexy-occult dimestore novel. It’s a campy, excessive femininity that borders on the grotesque in its exaggeration.
Throughout the movie, her makeup looks morph to match the tone of the scene and outfit, starting with confident bright blue shadow and pink lipstick as the love-starved Elaine starts her new life, ready for Mr. Right. The eyes play a particularly central part, as the camera zooms into Elaine’s hypnotic gaze as it’s turned on unsuspecting men who are all helpless to resist.
Intense eye makeup is a recurring theme among female characters, symbolizing both occult and sexual power – female characters without this type of appeal have a far more pared-down makeup look, like Trish, Elaine’s new friend. Other women in the film also have a natural look, making Elaine look all the more exotic in comparison.
Barbara however, is involved in the same occult circle as Elaine, where sexual polarity and female sex appeal are central. As such, she wears the sultry kohl-pencilled eye look seen above.
New initiates Moon and Star are initially fresh-faced and dressed in simple whites, but after being taught by the witch circle to draw on their sex appeal, both wear black-and-gold eye makeup and face paint as they mesmerize male onlookers.
After her first romance fails with tragic consequences, Elaine’s makeup takes on a slightly less cheery look, with blue eyeshadow traded for smoky purples and greys, only for the blue to return as she once again starts to pursue potential love interests. The colour choices and intensity of her looks reflect not only her emotional state, but her intent. As she finally falls in love for real, her colour scheme softens and lightens, presenting her as more vulnerable – and when that love fails, her misery hardens her both in behaviour and appearance.
As it turns out, Elaine’s methods are a form of self-defense and a survival mechanism in a world where men have judged, hurt and used her. In one scene where makeup plays a particularly symbolic role, a grief-stricken Trish breaks into Elaine’s apartment and starts applying her makeup and wearing her clothes, desperately trying to achieve the same type of feminine charm as Elaine – even going so far as to wear her wig and lingerie. The scene echoes Elaine’s magic rituals earlier in the film, presenting the artifice of feminine self-adornment as a form of witchcraft in itself.
In The Love Witch, Anna Biller succeeds in satirizing misogynist film tropes of 60s esoterica and sexploitation, while using a kitschy historical aesthetic that strengthens the story rather than obscuring it. It’s robust substance and technicolour surface elegantly combined to pose questions about love, power, gender and performativity, all delivered with equal measures of humour and sobriety.