Love may not be in the air these days, but it makes its power known in a couple of very different movies opening this week in Portland. Director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” tells the story of the couple behind one of the key legal decisions of the civil rights movement, while Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” attempts a campy, feminist subversion of B-movie sauciness.
“Loving”: More love than outrage
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were married in Washington, D.C. They had traveled there to tie the knot because doing so in their home state of Virginia would make them guilty of a felony. Richard was white; Mildred was “colored,” in the language of the day. (She was of African American and Native American descent.)
After being rousted from their bed in the middle of the night, the Lovings pled guilty to violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and sentenced to a year in prison. The sentence was suspended, however, on the condition that they leave the state and not return, at least together, for 25 years. Eventually, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lovings waged a legal battle that ended with a unanimous 1967 Supreme Court decision declaring anti-miscegenation laws nationwide to be unconstitutional. (Such laws were still being enforced in 15 other states besides Virginia.)
That’s the book-report version of the events depicted in “Loving,” and if a movie about the persistent, oft-postponed quest for a humane, tolerant society doesn’t seem relevant, then you haven’t been paying a lick of attention. Nichols, the rising talent behind “Midnight Express” and “Take Shelter,” takes an admirably low-key approach to the story. The focus is squarely on Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) and their durable, genuine, relationship.
This is a movie that could have been full of stem-winding courtroom speeches and sun-dappled paeans to equality and justice, especially after the ACLU attorney (Nick Kroll) gets involved. But Nichols, perhaps inspired by the fact that the Lovings didn’t even attend the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision, barely even takes us inside the halls of justice. Husband and wife are both depicted as soft-spoken and humble, the polar opposite of rabble-rousers or activists.
In fact, the movie almost goes too far in tamping down its righteous fury. Edgerton’s performance, in particular, feels reduced to a series of grunts and grimaces at times, whether he’s tinkering with a hot rod or meeting with a lawyer. That said, this is still, inevitably, a potent tale, if only because it reminds us that less than fifty years ago, across a decent swath of the country, it remained illegal for interracial couples to marry. (In fact, even though it ceased to be enforced, Alabama’s statute remained on the books until 2000.) And, for what it’s worth, if you’re reading this and imagining that these laws were a vestige of the Confederacy, know that Oregon’s anti-miscegenation law wasn’t repealed until 1951.
“The Love Witch”: Stretching the joke
But maybe you need a laugh. If so, you may consider “The Love Witch.” Anna Biller, who designed the costume and sets and composed the score in addition to writing, directing, and producing the movie, has crafted a sly homage to 1960s exploitation fare. It looks great, from the vibrant colors captured on 35mm to the stunning star, Samantha Robinson, who’s gorgeous and definitely in on the joke.
She plays Elaine, who flees San Francisco after poisoning her husband and lands in a small, northern-California town. There, she meets up with some other witches and uses her psychopharmacological acumen to make a series of local men fall for her in a big way. It has the feel of a Russ Meyer film, but with more of a “pussy power” undertone, with Elaine as a turbo-charged example of the woman who’s willing to trade sex for love.
“The Love Witch” is a one-joke movie, though, and trying to stretch it out to nearly two hours is a mistake. Halfway through, you get the point, only to have it belabored over and over. Biller also edited the film, and that’s the only of her many hats she probably should have let someone else wear.
(“Loving” opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Living Room Theater and expands to other screens on Nov. 23; “The Love Witch” opens Friday, Nov. 18 at the Living Room Theater and the Hollywood Theatre.)
ALSO WORTH A LOOK THIS WEEK:
“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”: Before he donned blue body paint to play Yondu in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Michael Rooker earned horrified plaudits for his 1986 portrayal of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. For its 30th anniversary, director John McNaughton’s unrelenting look at pathological violence has been digitally restored. (Friday-Sunday, Hollywood Theatre)
Chantal Akerman: The Northwest Film Center’s intermittent retrospective of the work of the pioneering, feminist Belgian filmmaker, who died last year, continues with three programs this weekend. The most essential screening is Saturday’s: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” made in 1975, is a three-and-a-half-hour film that follows the quotidian domestic duties of a widowed housewife who lives with her teenage son. This is one of the ultimate stick-with-it movies in the history of cinema, and an immensely powerful statement on both dramatic and political levels.