From March 9- 12, 2017, the American Cinematheque at, the Aero theatre will host a film series dedicated to shedding light on “gaslighting.” If you don’t know how to play this cruel, deceptive mind game, consider this a primer. We asked co-founder of Etheria Film Night Heidi Honeycutt to go over the elements of a good “gaslighting.”
Love is a lie!
Wait, bear with me, I’ll explain through my discussion of this new series at the Aero Theatre that gathers together, under one program, the best of the worst people to fall in love with.
Anna Biller is more than just a filmmaker: she’s what the pretentious (myself included) call an “auteur.” Though her films have meticulously designed period settings and pay homage to established art and cinema styles, her work is distinctly, and always, recognizable as hers. To watch an Anna Biller film is to immediately sense her unmistakable touch. The Love Witch, her second feature-length film, is a seductive thriller about a woman who uses witchcraft to make men fall in love with her. A beautiful deconstruction of narcissism, feminism, and new-age magical imagery, The Love Witch perfectly balances all the necessary elements, including Technicolor, to achieve something akin to perfection in independent, period filmmaking. Samantha Robinson’s portrayal of Elaine, the unstable protagonist, is mesmerizing, while Biller’s costumes, art design, and palette add an ethereal quality to her performance.
Elaine hides her use of witchcraft from her victims, practicing deception that progresses through all of her relationships, friendships, and even to self-deceit. Biller’s take on gaslighting is not unlike some of the films she and Grant Moninger have programmed for the upcoming "Gaslighting and Tormenting: From Hitch to The Love Witch" series, particularly Leave Her to Heaven. Gaslighting simply means to manipulate someone into questioning their own sanity, much like my parents do to me at every family dinner. The term itself derives from the George Cukor-directed film Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, in which Bergman plays a woman purposefully driven to the edge of insanity by her husband for nefarious, criminal reasons. In Leave Her to Heaven, it is Gene Tierney who, like Elaine in The Love Witch, practices deception in a desperate attempt to secure the love of her husband (Cornel Wilde).
However, in Gaslight, as well as the other films in this series in which the male is the one doing the gaslighting, the motive is usually money: in Shadow of a Doubt it is Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie who may be murdering women for their money; in Rosemary's Baby, it’s Rosemary’s husband Guy who has made a pact with the devil for fame and fortune; in Sudden Fear, Jack Palance tricks Joan Crawford into believing he loves her so he can inherit her money, and in Dial M For Murder, Ray Milland channels his jealousy into a practical murder plan that will leave him with wife Grace Kelly’s fortune. What is it with men and money, anyway? These women seem to do just about anything to be loved, while the men are obsessed with dollar signs. Only in Diabolique does this formula not quite fit (at first). In this unsettling French-language thriller, a wife and her husband’s mistress murder their abusive shared lover only to later doubt that they finished the job, as hints he is still alive are too difficult to miss. While the initial motive of the women is to escape the abuses of love, the film doesn’t ignore the financial motive so common in these stories.
The Love Witch, like Diabolique and Rosemary's Baby, challenges our belief in the power of the supernatural, but just like Dial M For Murder, Gaslight, Shadow of a Doubt, Sudden Fear, and Leave Her to Heaven, the paranoia and fear in these films is ultimately thanks to good, old-fashioned treachery. The terror comes not so much from being afraid that one is going insane (though it certainly is unsettling), but from the realization that you’ve been victimized by someone you love. Building paranoia and tension lead up to the ultimate shock: you’ve been manipulated, ruthlessly, and you have to escape before it’s too late. Betrayal is the ultimate horror in these stories, murder attempts aside. Just think: how could you ever trust anyone again after finding out Jack Palance was putting on an act this whole time, or that your beloved handsome husband sold you out to Satan himself, or that your wife deliberately miscarried your child so that it wouldn’t interfere with your love for her? Chilling, isn’t it?
On March 9, Elaine and Gene Tierney’s Ellen portray narcissists that will stop at nothing to feel loved, on their terms, in The Love Witch and Leave Her to Heaven, respectively.
On March 10, cruel husbands plot shady murders and “perfect crimes” in Gaslight and Sudden Fear, all for money.
On March 11, there’s a supernatural element to betrayal and lies with Rosemary's Baby and Diabolique (or is there?).
On March 12, Hitchcock’s wry gallows humor accompanies his well-paced thriller Shadow of a Doubt and leaves Ray Milland in a serious jam in Dial M For Murder. This evening is also “Hitchcock Appreciation Day” (in case you don’t appreciate him every day like you should).
The only thing this program is missing is 1960’s Midnight Lace, a truly disturbing thriller about gaslighting in which Doris Day runs screaming through the streets of London for the first and only time in her career as husband Rex Harrison plots behind her back. Maybe we’ll bring it in next time.
The American Cinematheque’s series "Gaslighting and Tormenting: From Hitch to The Love Witch" takes place from March 9 - 12, 2017 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
Heidi Honeycutt is the programmer of the “Rack Focus” series at the American Cinematheque, including the women directors’ genre film festival Etheria Film Night (@EtheriaFN). When she’s not doing that, she’s writing for film magazines, watching pre-code talkies, and wearing sweatpants.