Domicile as Expression of Individual Will and Agency in Anna Biller's "The Love Witch"

Curator's Note

Domicile, as construct, and as set in a specific framework, when we pause to consider the implications of framing a home with images as presented in Anna Biller’s recent film The Love Witch, can provide a rich tapestry of symbols to analyze in consideration of the traditional public/private sphere divide presented in studies of femininity. Private scenes set in an apartment where Elaine, a young witch who desperately seeks love, creates magical artifacts for sale and casts spells, are said by her landlord to be framed in images drawn from the Thoth Tarot deck from the Crowleyan tradition an establishing scene. The images found in paintings on the walls are not actually identifiable as such, however. Original paintings soon become replaced by Elaine’s handiwork, like paintings in which she rips out the heart of men with a ceremonial athame (dagger) imagining herself as icon holding the reigns of a horse, while dreaming of many men. In considering the Crowleyan tradition’s core tenet: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will,” and Elaine’s use of these spells to initiate relationships that transpire in the death of several men--we might interpret Biller’s portrayal of domicile as arena in which feminine agency is at its strongest--a place where woman can most exercise her own will, no matter how sordid it is. In contrast, scenes set in public--a smoky nightclub, in the confines of a police headquarters, and an open, airy Renaissance faire--create spaces in which Elaine futily attempts to express her sense of feminine agency. Here, Elaine’s ego is thwarted by the will of others and is eventually reigned in by an investigator and unruly crowd who will not suffer a witch to live. If we examine how repression expresses itself through the forensic trail of Freud, Foucault, and Hegel as Judith Butler presents it in The Psychic Life of Power, Elaine’s desire for bodily autonomy and matriarchal control over the process of life might present themselves in a more “rebellious” light. Butler states: “The psychoanalytic discourse that would describe and pathologize repressed desire ends up producing a discursive incitement to desire: impulse is continually fabricated as a site of confession and, hence, potential control, but this fabrication exceeds the regulatory aims by which it is generated,” (59). Butler also presents argumentation for a sense of love beyond the framework of power, a force that is “beyond interpellation,” in later chapters. In consideration of this theory, Elaine’s actions and Anna Biller’s ultimate statement might be interpreted through a lens that reads them in semiotic language that begs the world for a sense of feminine agency it just won’t seem to grant.


Very insightful discussion of feminine spaces as depicted in this film. It's interesting that this depiction goes hand-in-hand with some of Butler's "Contingent Foundations." She notes especially the stereotypical/sexist dynamic underlying culture around the time of publication, namely the assumption that "there is no enclosure, that is, no protection, other than the home as domestic marital space." In context, she is posing the problem of the language that persistently blames the victim. In the rhetoric, she notes the implication that women are supposed to, by patriarchal norms, stay at home and everywhere else is a risk. Clearly, it's a domineering and problematic mentality to impose a binary like this, and Butler is pointing that out. Now, I'm curious about this idea of the domestic as feminine space versus the world as masculine (as per this heteronormativity that Butler is taking to task). Do you see this domestic space that Elaine inhabits as contributing to this binary, or dismantling it? Especially if she is using her powers to find love, but love that repeatedly ends in death? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

That's a phenomenally good question. I'm not sure I can say. In my Barthian "dead author" shoes, I want to say it's reifying the divide while dismantling the idea of disempowerment. But it's also drawing specific attention to the divide, both visually and contextually in how the plot develops. I like your reading of the situation through Butler as well. I think The Love Witch would definitely fall in the lines of "everywhere else being a risk," besides the Tea Room, which is a place men are not allowed. It's still semi-private, and not public. Despite the fact Elaine poisons her lovers, it's easy to equally see her as victim. I'd almost say she mirrors the structural violence inherent to her relationships back.

My first thought reading this was of Medea (both the Euripides and Seneca depictions) - traditionally, botany based medicine was the realm of women (temple priests "prayed" over people as treatment). The Greeks revered Medea as a sorceress because she understood the healing powers of plants (as well as their more pragmatic, "poison this rival to the throne" applications). Wiccan religions, usually erroneously labeled occult, follow in this botany based, natural healing powers tradition -- and also, was the providence of women, the healers. The art on the walls you describe here is interesting as a manifestation of the woman/wicca's healing powers gone awry - although I think this is a very twentieth century interpretation of "witchcraft."

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