Director Spotlight: Who Is Anna Biller?

A CinePunked favourite, this multi-award-winning director defies easy categorisation. Her movies are visually stunning and generically playful, but don’t let the glossy, high-saturation Technicolour of 2007’s Viva or 2016’s The Love Witch lull you into believing it’s a case of style over substance: there’s a beating, angry heart beneath both of her feature-length offerings that demands engagement. In 2023, we’re set to see her add novelist to her lengthy list of job titles with the release of her debut Bluebeard’s Castle – a contemporary tale of gothic suspense – from Verso Books, and we’d be deeply surprised if her textual offerings were any less layered than the vibrant, piercing wit of her cinematic work.

So, who is Anna Biller? A criminally under-famous filmmaker who’s definitely worth your time, that’s who. Read on for our quick guide to one of the most interesting directors working today.

She has a background in visual art

Three Examples of Myself As Queen (dir. Anna Biller, 1994)

And by “background” we mean “since early childhood.” Her mother is a fashion designer; her father is a painter, and as a kid she was surrounded by an outpouring of aesthetics at every turn. Her mother’s boutique sold bespoke pieces to the Los Angeles elites, so Biller grew up surrounded by movie stars. “I grew up here [in LA] and I’ve been so affected by it,” she says. “Everyone works in the industry, everybody is an actor or a writer, and there’s this kind of glamour and artifice everywhere.”

She has a BA in Art from UCLA and an MFA in Art and Film from the California Institute of the Arts. Both of these things are widely apparent in her films, which make full use of her intricate knowledge of colour and visual style. 

“In college,” she says, “I initially went into theater but switched into the art department, because I wanted to make things. Later I switched to film, trying to combine making things with my history of amateur cinephilia. I’ve always been a bookworm, as well, and played the piano, so I used this rudimentary background to learn to write scripts and music for my films.”
Go ahead and watch literally any of her films and tell us this background doesn’t come through in every glorious frame. We dare you.

She’s a one-stop argument for auteur theory

The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016)

As we’ve argued elsewhere, auteur theory is a decent starting point for beginning the discussion about the value (or lack thereof) of individual films and filmmakers, but it has several key issues. Not least among these is the fact that the collaborative nature of filmmaking means that a multitude of creative voices go into establishing the overall artistic text that comprises the finished film. The director gets all the credit, under auteur theory, and if you happen to be the cinematographer who single-handedly worked out the lighting arrangement and camera positions that established the film’s award-winning visual aesthetic, or the production designer who spent months researching in minute detail what the parking meters of the future might look like (yes, this actually happened) – well, sucks to be you. It’s not your name getting turned into an adjective when obsessive fans wax lyrical about the movies they love.

In Biller’s case, however, the auteur argument carries a bit more weight. That’s because most of those creative roles are also filled by her.

Her imdb page credits her as director of a total of six films: four shorts, two features. On each and every one of them, she’s also listed as producer, writer, editor, production designer, and costume designer. In Viva, she also played the lead role and she also scored The Love Witch. This is a deliberate move by a filmmaker with a highly specific aesthetic goal – on The Love Witch, for example, she knew exactly what rug she needed for a couple of seconds of footage in which protagonist Elaine is shown reclining while casting a spell. The rug did not exist. So Biller spent six months hooking one herself.

So, while there’s certainly a valid argument to be made against auteur theory as it applies to most feature film directors, when the director in question happens to be in charge of creating, managing and capturing virtually every aspect of what appears on screen… it’s probably a bit more reasonable to credit them as the author of the text as a whole.

She takes her time (and it shows)

The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller, 2016)

The Love Witch took Biller more than seven years to complete. Her third movie, as of the time of writing (February 2023), remains in development (though it has been turned into the above-mentioned novel). This is to be expected of a filmmaker as hands-on as she is: one critic describes her process as “insanely intricate and laborious […] She develops her scripts over many years, obsessing about the psychological reality of her characters. Then she sketches the elaborate sets and props and assembles them or makes them out of whole cloth (literally, in the case of drapes).” That’s… not getting done in an afternoon.

On the other hand, the lengthy development period meant that The Love Witch ended up being released three days after the (infamous) 2016 US election. Which gave its central themes a whole new level of significance.

Her films are like an explosion in a genre shop – in a good way

A Visit From The Incubus (dir. Anna Biller, 2001)

“Most people have by now forgotten that the ubiquitous concept of “glamour” was originally part of the vocabulary of witchcraft.”

Gustavo Turner, LA Weekly

Described by one critic as “Hitchcock-meets-Hammer,” The Love Witch references everything from Italian giallo films to Douglas Sirk’s lush colour-saturated melodramas to films noirs to pre-Hayes Code Hollywood movies such as Babyface (dir. Alfred E Green, 1933) in which women use their wiles to best the manliest of manly men and come out on top. That sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it really, really does. 

Her work returns time and again to the tension between beauty and good in classical Hollywood cinema. “How I long for those glamorous screen sirens today, looming in shimmering nitrate silver or Technicolor in hand-beaded gowns,” she writes in her blog. “I also long for their problems, for the way in which those problems are rooted in social reality, and for the seemingly universal concern that people had for their problems. Their sexuality was of a powerful and seething nature, and they were always fascinating.” 

The Love Witch’s Elaine is perhaps the apotheosis of this desire to unite the “complex picture of women’s psychological needs and fears,” she identifies in 1940s and 1950s melodramas. Dressed immaculately in perfectly cut clothes designed to emulate the elegance of that earlier age, with 1960s blue eyeshadow, 1970s glossy hair, and blood red nails, Elaine is classical Hollywood glamour made flesh. And yet by actively working to seduce the men whose love she so desperately craves – and by resorting to murder when they break her heart – she defies that double standard dictating that these silver-screen goddesses must be “powerfully sexy [but also] virtuous.”

Feminist film theory underpins her work

Viva (dir. Anna Biller, 2007)

“Years ago when I was first starting out as a filmmaker, I became interested in trying to create a cinema based on visual pleasure for women.”

Anna Biller

Both of Biller’s feature-length movies to date – Viva (2007) and The Love Witch (2016) – both revolve around female sexuality and fantasy and the differing expectations of women and men when it comes to intimacy, love and connection. Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze is present throughout her work as both Barbi (Viva) and Elaine (The Love Witch) present their faces, their beauty and their bodies for the camera – often in the stereotypically static pose developed by male gaze-oriented cinema the better to allow for their voyeuristic consumption – and yet push back, sometimes violently, against submission, compromise or anything other than love and sexual expression on their own terms. 

Biller frequently references the problematic gender expectations of earlier Hollywood genres and movements through the visual style of her movies, which consciously emulate the aesthetics of golden-age Hollywood or the sexualised thrillers and horror of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. “My specific concerns,” she writes, “are with the lived day-to-day experience of the female. Years ago when I was first starting out as a filmmaker, I became interested in trying to create a cinema based on visual pleasure for women.”

In a mainstream cinema still defined by its obsession with the male gaze, that’s about as anarchic as it gets.

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