On the Psychosis of The Love Witch

The Love Witch05/19/15

The love witch at tea time

The Love Witch is a meticulously constructed throwback to 1970s B-movies. From the first frame to the last, it is clear just how much work went into this film. Indeed, the film opted to use 35mm in lieu of filtered video and the director has stated that she made many of the costumes herself and that the film’s total time to completion was about 7 years. In an aesthetic sense the film is thus a total success and, despite the occasional use of modern technology via cell phones or computers, I hardly felt as if I was anywhere but the 1970s.

There are other ways in which the film is able to reproduce the feeling of watching, specifically, a B-movie which comes from the generally wooden acting, over-the-top emotional expressions, and facile script. Ultimately, it seemed to be an open question whether the film was attempting to be ironic in its presentation of these other aspects of the genre in the same way that someone might disavow a tasteless joke that nobody laughs at after the fact. Nevertheless, there is a great richness in what unfolds within The Love Witch although one wonders why certain episodes within in weren’t more condensed once the pattern of how the love witch functions had been established.

Spoiler Alert

The main protagonist of The Love Witch is Elaine, a woman obsessed with perfect love to the exclusion of all other things. In fact, this obsession with having perfect love is what led her to become a witch in the first place having come to the conclusion that more powerful tools were necessary in order to achieve her romantic goals. The comedy of the film comes mostly from her single-minded, unrelenting pursuit of this objective which repeatedly backfires because of its puissance. Every man she involves herself with eventually dies due to the overpowering effect of her spell; a fact which is somehow completely lost on the love witch herself. In lieu of analyzing her strategies and correcting them or reassessing her expectations of how love functions, she simply continues implementing the same strategy and achieving the same results over and over again. This total ignorance of the effects of her actions along with what appears to be a complete lack of discernment in choosing the men she involves herself with speaks to the fact that the love witch wants nothing more than a vessel to fill her fantasies with, a pliable vessel that will not die or leave her. In other words, the love witch does not appear to have any relationships in any meaningful sense throughout the entire film with the possible exception of her first relationship.

We can thus contextualize the film according to its prehistory. When we first meet the love witch, she is driving to a new place to start a new life. She is fleeing the police who she believes have been unfairly harassing her for what they believe to be her involvement in the death of one of her previous lovers. However, we later learn that this is only part of the picture. The genesis of the love witch is actually from the ashes of a broken marriage. Her husband leaves her for another woman and her inability to accept this fact and move on with her life causes her to obsess over how she might get him back which eventually leads her to adopt witchcraft as her method. The ex-husband thus becomes the first target and victim of this new person, the love witch.

The birth of the love witch may be viewed as Elaine’s psychotic break from reality. In other words, her inability to accept and integrate into her reality the fact that her husband has left her causes her to detach from that reality instead and to live perpetually in her fantasy. In this other place, perfect love is possible with the right tools (in this case, being those of witchcraft) and any failure of love is to be blamed on not having found the perfect partner yet. As she moves from one man to another, she always blames the deaths of these men on innate weaknesses that they have that make them unsuitable for the power of her spells. Virtually without batting an eyelash, she continues onward to the next person as if her plan were to seduce every single man, one by one, until arriving at the perfect partner.

Just as the love witch lives in her own fantasy realm, she also appears as fantasy to others. From all the men she encounters to her sole female friend, Trish, she refuses to allow any depth to develop and goes through her life interacting on a level of total superficiality. This point is particularly emphasized in the sequence in which her neighbor, Trish, goes into the her apartment to return a ring and decides to dress up exactly as her. Having been fetishizing the love witch as a perfect woman from the first time she exclaimed, with surprise, that she was beautiful, this dress up is irresistible to Trish who clearly sees herself as inferior, far too mundane, far too much a real person.

In fact, one of the interesting things about this film is that the entire universe of the film appears as artifice with all characters having little depth or development. The few moments when some depth begins to show through are quickly shut down (and it is interesting to note that these moments are always coming from characters besides the love witch). However, as the main protagonist you would think that the love witch would change or develop in some way. Instead, the conclusion of the film has to do with how she obstinately refuses to leave her fantasy.

Although the trail of dead lovers does not seem to bother the love witch, the man who refuses to submit to her spell does and it is this conflict on which the conclusion of the film hinges. The police officer, Grif, investigating the mysterious death of one of her lovers is eventually lead to her. As expected, he becomes interested in her and they begin a relationship wherein he begins to experience strong romantic feelings toward her. However, the usual arc of her relationship goes awry when  the mounting evidence of her involvement in the death of her previous lover makes it impossible for Grif to continue participating in the romance. He refuses her spell and disengages from her completely; an action which clearly infuriates and perplexes the love witch.

At this point, Elaine enters into the same sort of challenge that precipitated her detachment from reality and transformation into the love witch and, once again, she chooses fantasy and detachment. Whereas in all the previous situations, the man died because of the power of her spell (manifesting through unexpected but possible physical ailments such as a sudden heart attack) thus allowing her to live with the idea that the man was madly in love with her until death while also allowing her to disavow any direct responsibility for their deaths, in this instance neither is possible. Grif sits there stone-faced and emotionless. He flaunts his rejection of her spell and, by extension, of her while he waits for the moment in which she will give in to reality and allow him to arrest her. But this does not happen, instead the love witch stabs him in the heart having been inspired by a painting on her wall. She refuses his call to return to a reality that she sees as harsh and meaningless and instead kills him with inspiration from a magical mural. We can only assume that she will rationalize this murder as being yet another necessary or tragic consequence of her love magic and that she will continue on to the next person. With the murder of Grif, she decides to never return again and eliminates the last vestiges of the person the love witch once was.

The extraordinary lack of character development in the film may thus be seen as an expression of the fact that from the beginning to the end of the film, Elaine is stuck in her psychosis. Only at the very end is there but an instant in which she could leave it, a possibility she decisively rejects. Ultimately, Elaine decides that fantasy is preferable to reality even if it means getting blood on your hands.

The Skin I Live In: A Story of Disavowals (spoilers)

Quick Context Summary: The Skin I Live In is a film about an obsessional doctor (Robert) who kidnaps the boy who raped his deceased daughter (Vincente, later Vera) and keeps him captive while he transforms his body into that of a female’s through various surgical procedures.

Even from the title you begin to get a grasp of the ontology of this film. Skin is separated from self, being merely a quality of the self. You inhabit a skin yet you are not that skin. This is, in essence, what ultimately saves Vincente and kills Robert for it is Robert’s obsession and misrecognition of Vincente as Vera that allows for Vincente’s plan to function and allow his escape.

Let me say that this film by Almodovar is perhaps the clearest expression of Almodovar’s own obsessions directly dealing with important questions of sexuality and gender that in previous films have functioned more on the side than at the forefront. In particular, the unraveling of the story is done in such a way that your categorization and understanding of the characters radically changes after one has already begun to form a judgment about them thus producing a space of reflection between these two points.

The film begins with a relationship between a doctor and a woman who appears to be his prisoner. Little by little we recognize that this woman has become his pet project testing his transgenic experiments but we know nothing about her except that there is some sort of  eerie resemblance to an absent other which we eventually learn is the doctor’s dead wife. As the film develops we become aware of the fate of his deceased wife and deceased daughter and what they have to do with the production of Vera with the daughter providing the alibi and his wife the model. We thus see a sort of conflation of these two forces in the figure of Vera who is both made to look like his wife while being the same age as his daughter. She fulfills a fantasy of a ghostly return of his wife in perfect form before her accident. This psychic investment will later betray him.

The conflict between Vincente and Robert is present throughout the entire film up to the point when Robert expresses his desire for the reconstructed wife in Vera at which point it becomes visible to Vincente that he can perform for Robert what Robert expects in his fantasy of his reanimated wife and in this way be able to escape. This allowance  can only happen by Robert disavowing the origins of Vera as Vincente. First of all, as Vincente is turned into Vera we see him given various feminine accoutrements as if he is being told that the physical change is not sufficient, now you must also perform the social role of woman even in the absence of others. This appears to be simply naturalized from the perspective of Robert so that Vera’s need for make up and dresses appears self evident. This self evidence is also what makes Vera’s avowal of desire for him completely acceptable for him for Vera looks like his wife and even if Vera used to be a male with a female sexual object choice, now that he’s a she the change of sexual object choice to male is accepted as obvious for him. This simplistic gender schema that Robert accepts as self evident allows for Vincente’s trick to function and gets to the heart of the title of the film.

If we can think of sex, gender, and sexuality separately then we can understand that a person is biological male or female yet acts socially as a man or woman and has a sexual object choice and that these are all independent though we push certain normative bundles such as the female woman with a masculine object choice and the male man with a feminine object choice. These standard bundles allow for people to believe in more simplistic gender schemas such as the conflation between sex and gender and the idea that aberrant desire denotes an incomplete formation of sex/gender thus showing inauthenticity of being. That is, the gay man as defective thus preserving the idea that maleness is tied to heterosexual desire because you are not fully male if your desire is “wrong.”

In regards to the film, Robert appears to accept the simplistic gender schema so that, for him, Vincente, by virtue of having his body transformed from have male organs to female organs, must also naturally want to “act like a woman” and also desire men as women are supposed to do. Because this is obvious to him, there is no cognitive dissonance or confusion when Vera tells him s/he wants him though there is also the misrecognition of Vera as his returned dead wife functioning which is also  compelling him to forget Vera’s origins. These two things may help explain his total trust in Vera as well as his mother’s distrust. She has nothing at stake in regards to Vera so she can always already see Vera as the transformed Vincente.

The title thus describes the fact that Vera does not exist. Vera is a mask as well as a fantasy that covers over and obscures Vincente. Vincente lives inside of Vera and ultimately uses Vera to escape his prison. The relationship between Robert and Vera/Vincente in the latter part of the film is thus articulated on many registers. We have Robert’s fantasy with Vincente playing the part of Vera, the naturalized woman, but beneath this, we also have Vincente as the master using the body of Vera in this capacity. It’s interesting to consider, then, that within the Vincente/Vera persona we have a sort of depth structure. Outwardly, we have a female body who also performs feminine gender (for now) being controlled by Vincente. Within this one being we have an interesting articulation of Lacanian concepts since Vincente (as subject and master) is using Vera (as form and fantasy) in order to be the desire of Robert (the other). As such, Vincente exploits the assumption of his having feminine subjectivity in order to dupe Robert into a sexual relationship (which incidentally always fails (even technically); every time Vera and Robert have intercourse, Vera experiences too much pain to continue).

The end of the film produces an interesting moment in its subtext vis-a-vis the start of the film. When Vincente finally returns to his mother’s store, he first speaks to his former co-worker referencing the earlier encounter they had in the film where he flirted with her and she denied him citing an incongruity between his gender and her sexual object choice (she’s a lesbian). Now, of course, he could have a lesbian relationship with his co-worker since his body is now congruous with her sexual object choice. This moment is interesting because it serves as a way of problematizing the simplistic gender schema that Robert seemed to have. If Vincente is Vincente in all ways except body then that means he still feels like a man in essence and he’s still attracted to women as before so that his expression of himself now, in the absence of surgery to return him to something resembling his former body, would entail lesbianism. This plus the moment where his mother learns that her son has been physically transformed into a women ends the film allowing for the audience to consider where this incredibly charged moment might lead.