It’s Anna Biller’s dream world, and we are all lucky to be living in it.
Watching the work of the endlessly original American filmmaker is almost like wandering through a dream, stepping into a kaleidoscopic and candy-colored alternative reality. A strange feeling washes over you as the colors delight your eyes and the sounds take hold. Biller is perhaps one of the most distinctive stylistic voices in contemporary cinema. She seems to epitomize the idea of an “auteur,” a bona fide Renaissance woman and multi-hyphenate — in addition to directing and writing films, she is also an editor and occasional actor, and is often responsible for the production design, the costumes, and the original score. Her work frequently pays homage to the brightly hued Technicolor melodramas and pulpy tales of yore.
Her best-known work, the 2016 feature film The Love Witch, offers a sensual, magickal take on female exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s. Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, a beautiful young witch determined to use her powers to make men love her, deploying her alluring looks and occult magic to charm (or curse) the men around her. Elaine’s apartment décor is inspired by the tarot deck, and she cooks up various potions and schemes as she pursues her goal of love. It’s equal parts fairy tale and fever dream, hallucination and haunting. Yet it also delivers potent commentary on the sexploitation genre and the unrealistic expectations set for women, satirizing the idea that women need to buy into the male fantasy or constantly cater to the male gaze.
Biller draws inspiration from diverse sources from fairy tales to old Hollywood musicals, from westerns Renaissance faires, and is particularly attuned toward reinventing these genres to examine the female experience and what it means for women to be seen as sexual creatures. The films resist singular classification — blending horror and comedy, melodrama and musical — and defy my ability to sum them up in a few words. Dreams and nightmares defy logic; you have to experience them, feel them, and surrender to the uncertainty. In her distorted, darkly comedic takes on common genres, her worlds of horror filtered through a rainbow prism, every prop, every costume, every touch of the production design from the texture of the carpet to the contours of the chairs feel purposefully placed for maximum dramatic effect. Everything in the dream world has a meaning, if you want to get really psychoanalytical about it all.
In two short films she directed from 2001, A Visit from the Incubus and The Hypnotist (both of which are available to stream on the Criterion Channel), we get to journey into the depths of the unconscious minds of women, and see the fantasies they project as well as the fantasies projected upon them. In A Visit from the Incubus, Lucy, played by Biller herself, is a young woman in the wild west whose nights are plagued by ceaseless visits from the incubus, a demon who has sexual intercourse with sleeping women. “I’ve been having nightmares,” Lucy confides in a friend, who responds: “Or they’ve been having you.”
This violation of her bedroom and body, as she lies deep asleep and unable to fight back, is a terrifying scene. Yet Biller’s heroine is not silenced by her status as a marked woman, but rather emboldened by it. Lucy gets dressed in red and goes into town to get a job at the Red Bird Saloon, determined to show what she’s got and make money for herself. The film also transforms the trope of an incubus from a dark and ominous monster to a hammy vaudevillian – the incubus performs a corny tune of “everyone’s talking about my Lucy,” but is booed offstage by the raucous cowboys, who are later enraptured by Lucy’s performance.
It is an utterly absurd image, but the nonsensicality of the musical numbers and of the scenes that unfold are what unlocks its potential as a feminist antidote to tales of violence against women — the film inverts the typical power dynamic of the folklore and places Lucy fully in control over the cartoonish incubus. Lucy might have her dreams invaded, but now the incubus too has his dreams crushed as his hopes of being a vaudevillian are shattered while Lucy emerges as a star.
In the fanciful phantasmagoria of The Hypnotist, three old-money siblings are forced to together in their family mansion forever, lest they forfeit their inheritance. The stylized acting of the moneyed siblings, including snobbish dandy Charles, the rebellious flirt Beatrice, and religiously zealous William, is spellbinding and entrancing, as they deliver campy lines and hurl witty insults at one another with an air of deadly seriousness. Then, the titular hypnotist arrives — the cheekily named Dr. Schadenfreude — who quickly enacts his powers over the siblings and manipulates them according to his whims, sending them into dream-states and unleashing ecstatic experiences.
This film examines what happens when men try to weaponize female sexuality and use it to take down women. The carefree Beatrice, when under hypnosis, is forced by the doctor to find regrets in her life and see herself as a “truly despicable person”; yet it is her despicableness that makes the drama so delicious, and it is her who comes out on top. There is plenty of candlelight, crumbling headstones, and spooky organ music to set the scene for the melodramatic horror that unfolds in the forty-five minutes of seductive weirdness. When you snap out of the hypnosis, you’re not quite sure what just happened— but know that something bizarre and affecting has transpired.
Like the characters in her melodramas, Biller mixes up a magical potion or hypnotizes spectators who will happily follow her vision anywhere, journeying through frenzied fantasias and debaucherously dangerous dreams. Everything is highly stylized and gorgeously designed, sumptuous spectacles that are feasts for the eyes as well as food for feminist thought.
If I never wake up again from Anna Biller’s cinematic nightmare-scape, I’ll be satisfied — and I’ll want her to do the production design of my funeral.