Why you should care

Because this is not Fifty Shades of Grey

Director Anna Biller’s take on sex makes her the aunt or older sister that I wish I had had when I saw my first porn.

Every girl has one such primal scene, whether it’s seeing your uncle’s stash of Seventies-era Playboys and thinking they’re funny — but not in the way that your male cousins do — or trying to be the cool girl at college watching bad 1980s porn in a room full of guys. The thing is, I wanted to laugh too, but I could feel that what I found funny wasn’t quite the same. Instead of laughing at the naked women, I wanted to laugh at the idea of them, but it would take a long time for me to articulate the difference.

Models for female humor about sex are limited, so finding one is a special kind of magic. Taking a break from a conference one sunny Pasadena, California, afternoon, I wandered into a showing of The Love Witch, a 2016 film advertised with the tagline “She loved men … to death.” Sitting in the dark theater, I realized that I was not the sole viewer being surprised and delighted by the spectacle. Think The Stepford Wives on acid plus great cinematography and lighting.

Biller’s films are sex comedies, with plotlines lifted from Playboy cartoons: For example, Viva (2007) features a housewife in a bad marriage whose sexual awakening includes a foray into prostitution and an orgy. But don’t call it sexploitation. That “moniker is wrong,” Biller says. She prefers “an even earlier time, in which violence was in the service of story, and women’s bodies had souls and minds attached.”

Biller’s films work because they tell a truth about both the pleasure of female life and the tedious minutiae of crafting a sexy self.

In The Love Witch, one set piece involves the heroine concocting a magic jar that includes a used tampon among the potion’s ingredients; a running gag follows, in which the male detectives on her case are equal parts stumped and disgusted by the strange object. A woman near me in the theater snorted her laughter. She was loving it — and so was I. A strange camaraderie had developed in the dark, stitching together a community of solo laughers, women having fun, not being disgusted by the tampon in the jar, but at the idea something so common to our experience could be perceived as repulsive and witchy.

Poster #2 for The Love Witch

A post shared by Anna Biller (@msannabiller) on

Biller’s films work because they tell a truth about both the pleasure of female life and the tedious minutiae of crafting a sexy self. “I think women today can get a lot of strength from role models like Mae West, for instance, whose innuendos were funny, sexy and powerful, and who really enjoyed being a woman,” Biller says. This feels fresh at a time when most women are getting off on a rainy S&M melodrama featuring an inexperienced teenager (a friend pointed out that Fifty Shades’ heroine has no on-screen orgasms in the theatrical release).

As a grown-ass woman, I’m bored by Bella and Christian’s exploits, but I’m enchanted by Biller’s DIY details. The Love Witch gives us a gonzo striptease that not only reveals a bit of skin but also the fact that the seductress (and the director/writer/costumer) is a fastidious seamstress who lines her clothes with rainbow fabric. In the Pasadena theater, the specificity of lining the actress’s dresses reached out to me and to other women in the audience. We felt spoken to by another woman who knows sex and sexuality as well as the small, womanly matter of wondering whether a garment is too sheer. The devil, and the delight, is in the details.

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