A woman with red hair and a yellow gown touches her chest, looking fearfully over her shoulder at a moonlit castle behind her.

‘The Love Witch’ Director Channels Her Inner Hitchcock in a New Bluebeard Story

For Anna Biller, known for her feminist cult films The Love Witch and Viva, the seed for her new novel Bluebeard’s Castle came from a classic film genre.

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“I’m really interested in ‘women in peril’ pictures,” Biller tells The Mary Sue. “Movies like Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion, and [similar movies like] Gaslight. I was intrigued by movies with a man menacing a woman, especially if he’s a love interest, and I knew that was the next kind of movie I wanted to make. They’re called Bluebeard pictures, because the women in them have to solve this mystery: Is this man the love of my life, or does he want to kill me?”

But the filmmaker ran into a problem that’s all too common in the entertainment industry.

“I tried to get it made, but it never got off the ground,” Biller says. “Then, after my agent started sending me all these books, my boyfriend suggested that I write the story as a book, and make it the underlying IP.”

The idea to get a film greenlit by writing it as a book first may seem cynical on the surface, but the practice has a pretty big silver lining: readers get a page-turner they can devour. Bluebeard’s Castle tells the story of Judith, a lonely novelist who grows up in the shadow of her beautiful sister. When the mysterious and dashing Gavin professes his love for Judith, she falls hard for him in return, and soon the two are living a fairy tale life in a castle on a sprawling English estate. But Judith comes to suspect that Gavin has a sinister side—and she fears that she’s ended up in a Bluebeard story.

Cover of Bluebeard's Castle by Anna Biller, featuring a woman with red hair and a yellow gown touching her chest, looking fearfully over her shoulder at a moonlit castle behind her.
(Verso Books)

The rational thing to do in a situation like that is run for the hills, but that doesn’t make for a very compelling plot, and Judith is far from a perfect character. “Gavin is like a building Judith’s trying to build,” Biller says. “She’s trying to fix him. Sometimes, when you’re working on a project and it starts to fail, you start digging deeper. Like, I’m going to win. I’m going to fix this, I’m going to do it. But abusers know what to do in that situation. They give the woman just enough so that she stays. When she’s about to leave, they say, ‘Come back, I’ll let you fix me.'”

Biller drew on her own experiences with abuse to portray Judith’s myopia when it comes to her own predicament—with a pretty big assist from the ways that fiction often portrays abusive behavior as romantic. “I examined my own behavior, and the behavior of the women I’ve known in toxic relationships,” Biller says. “This is what we actually do [in abusive relationships]. We forgive him, we take him back, we believe all his lies. It’s that fantasy that abusive men can be rehabilitated.”

The most fascinating thing about Judith, in Bluebeard’s Castle, is her keen awareness that she’s living out a gothic thriller in real time. Judith becomes fascinated by the Bluebeard myth, and yet struggles to break free of Gavin’s control. Biller cites classic novels like Clarissa, Jane Eyre, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles as inspiration for Judith’s story. “In Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” she says, “when Tess accepts the bad man back into her life, it’s because she would be dead otherwise. She and her family would die of starvation if she doesn’t accept him back. So I wanted to set Judith up as someone who had had so little love in her life that she feels like without Gavin, she would basically be dead. It’s a choice of life and death for her.”

Although Judith’s peril is at the forefront of Bluebeard’s Castle, the gothic setting is almost as much a character as the two lovers are. Biller says the hyper-stylized tone of the book was very intentional. “The expensive gifts, the castle, the wardrobe—that’s all part of the seducer playbook,” she says. “Judith becomes completely entrapped, not only in Gavin, but in where they’re living. It’s this fantasy that’s been constructed for her, which makes it really, really hard for her to extricate herself from it.”

And as for the Bluebeard myth, which Judith throws herself into while she’s living out her own version of it? “I was looking at myself and my own fascination with the Bluebeard fairytale,” she says. “It’s another layer you can add on to your fantasy, where you sublimate your own terror through fantasy and beauty, so that your real life doesn’t become this horror. In your mind, it’s actually this beautiful dream, this fairytale.”

The complicated women of Anna Biller’s world

Judith is only the latest of Biller’s unforgettable heroines. We also talked about Elaine, the titular character of The Love Witch. In The Love Witch, Elaine uses magic to pursue men, searching for love and leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. Elaine isn’t a good person, but she is a fascinating and sympathetic character, shying away from an abusive cult leader even as she hunts down her victims. “I’m interested in criminal minds,” Biller says. “I really like crime dramas, but the reason I made The Love Witch was because I feel like I’ve always been othered in my life because I’m a woman, and I’m of indeterminate race. When people look at me, they don’t know what I am.

Samantha Robinson in The Love Witch (2016)
From The Love Witch (2016), Oscilloscope Laboratories

“When I was young, I was really troubled by the constant othering and objectification,” she continues, “so I wanted to put the male fear of the sexy, beautiful witch together with a female feeling of empowerment. Male depictions of witches are usually from the outside, depicting male fantasy or male terror, but I wanted to show Elaine’s creativity, sexuality, power, and magic, so that you see the witch from the inside.”

This historical moment is a fraught time for women’s stories, with reproductive rights being dismantled and trans women being targeted by conservatives and bigots. When I ask Biller how her work fits into movements for women’s liberation, she seems flustered at first. “I’m really just trying to talk about what women go through,” she says. “My work isn’t going to change the world.”

Nevertheless, she does feel that stories about complicated, multifaceted women are important. “Creating complex female characters is important because women need to have characters they can look at,” she says. “Not just characters they can look up to, but characters that allow them to look at the complexity of who women are. I’ve noticed that some of the best writers today, like Miranda July or Carmen Maria Machado, write complex female characters. Reading them, you feel like, god, there’s so much to being a woman. There’s so much humanity.”

Bluebeard’s Castle will be released on October 10 by Verso Books.

(featured image: Verso Books)

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Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href="https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/">https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/.</a>