One of the more intimidating aspects of discussing Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch was coming to terms with the fact that most of its reference points as a pastiche were way beyond my grasp, even as someone who regularly watches schlock. The Love Witch mined old modes of horror-themed erotica, pictures like The Velvet Vampire, for its distinct visual palette & absurdist humor, but repurposed the genre for modernized modes of feminist discourse. I loved the results of that experiment, but have to openly admit that my very basic, surface-level knowledge of the genre & era The Love Witch was evoking was puny in comparison to Biller’s encyclopedic command of the subject. It turns out her debut film, Viva, would be even further outside my grasp as a genre film tourist. Paying homage to the softcore smut of the early 1970s that rode in on the success of Deep Throat and the optimistic promises of The Sexual Revolution (the kinds of films you’d hear detailed on the excellent podcast The Rialto Report), Viva is operating on a whole other level of schlock I have little to no experience with. My limited knowledge of smut peddlers like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman don’t equip me with the full vocabulary necessary to discuss the ways Viva acts as a love letter to softcore smut past. The film feels very authoritative on the subject, though, and it achieves such a specific image & tone that I have to again put my trust in the fact that Biller knows exactly what she’s doing.
Viva often looks & feels like an early 70s magazine layout. Its bored housewives, swinger couples, and nudist camp vouyerism all read like a Letter to Penthouse, but its iconography is the stuff of that magazine’s advertisement: Scotch, lingerie, deviled eggs, jellos & dips. Emboldened by a newfound sexual freedom afforded to them by the commercial availability of the birth control pill, the Liberated women of Viva take charge of their sex lives by leaving behind the incessant sexual pressures of husbands, neighbors, and bosses to become high class sex workers & “models.” One friend turns to prostitution as a convenient means of making money and finds immediate fulfillment in a wealthy, older men who showers her with gifts: diamonds, horses, fur coats, etc. The other woman, Viva, has a much narrower path to satisfaction. Instead of money, she seeks a genuine emotional connection with a kind, sensitive man. No matter how many supposedly sensitive artist-types her pimp set her up with, though, the results are always the same. Men throw pouty fits whenever Viva doesn’t give them exactly what they want (casual sex) upfront and instead of waiting to meet her on her own terms, they manipulate, drug, and physically force her into copulation. It’s a fucked up plot for a campy genre throwback, but finding feminist themes in these old modes of schlocky smut seems to be Biller’s forte and the basic story structure of Viva feels true to roughies like Lorna, Another Day Another Man, and, I have to presume, the “mainstream” smut that followed in the 1970s.
If Viva has a central problem, it’s that it’s a little too faithful to the films it pays tribute to. At 120 minutes, with multiple extensive musical numbers, the film can often feel as tedious as its source material for once the initial turn-on wore off. It’s also disappointing that its modern feminist criticism wasn’t as fully pronounced in the dialogue & plotting as it was in its more outrageous follow-up. Biller threatens to steer away from genre traditions with some queer plotlines & rape culture criticism that bubble up naturally in Viva‘s era-evoking plot machinations, but imstead decides to follow the old guard and allow the story to play out exactly as it would have four decades ago. However, even though it feels slightly less brave in its willingness to shake up & modernize the formula, Viva is still an impressive feat for a debut feature. Much like with The Love Witch, Biller exudes auteurist control in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft – not only writing, directing, editing, and handling the set & costume design herself, but in this case also starring in the titular role. There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.
It’s exciting to know that Biller’s best work is likely still ahead of her, but her aesthetic’s beginnings in Viva are worthwhile enough on their own merit that it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t yet fully formed as a filmmaker at the time she made it. If nothing else, the film expresses an incredible knowledge & affection for the past of America’s mainstream erotica. It also helps that Viva can be riotously amusing in stray absurdist moments, never playing like a dry, academic exercise in genre pastiche.