Saturday Matinee: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

By Jonathan Romney

Source: Film Comment

A term beloved of French film critics—and one I never tire of borrowing, just because it pinpoints its referent so well—is OVNI, meaning “UFO.” It’s used to refer to a film, usually a first feature, that’s next to impossible to categorize, that seems to have come out of nowhere, to have been made entirely against the odds—a film that appears to originate if not actually from other planets, then from some parallel cinematic dimension where the usual rules don’t apply.

Little could qualify more for OVNI-dom than an “Iranian vampire Western,” as Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature has been dubbed. In fact, the skewed quality of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is accentuated by the fact that it both is and isn’t “really” Iranian. That is, the film is in Farsi, and stars a cast of Iranian or Iranian-American actors, but was shot in California, not far from Bakersfield, where writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour grew up. Taft stands in for Bad City, as the subtitles call it—or “Shahr Bad,” which may possibly be a Farsi play on words—a run-down, isolated burg where weird things happen by night, and nothing too ordinary takes place by day.

The Girl of the title (Sheila Vand) is a gamine-ish music fan who likes to dance alone in her poster-decorated den. But when she steps out onto the streets, she’s not the imperiled victim that the title—misleadingly, cleverly—would have you expect. She’s a figure of menace: a marauder who wears a chador over a very Gallic stripy matelot top, adding a curious dash of indie-kid chic to her image as a ghost figure who glides rather than walk. In fact, her gliding gait comes from the fact that she’s commandeered a terrified child’s skateboard. Spreading her robe like black wings, the Girl haunts the night like an Islamic descendant of Musidora’s Irma Vep, lawless masked heroine of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires.

The Girl is indeed a vampire, and more than a match for supposedly the scariest presence on this city’s mean streets—thuggish drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains), who has “SEX” tattooed across his neck, a sleazy drooping moustache on his chops, and a pad filled with big-bad-hunter tat (deer’s heads, tiger-print throws…). The predatory Saeed practically licks his chops at the thought of feral sex when the Girl’s canines pop out to full length with an almost comical sound effect; he doesn’t look so happy once she snaps his finger off.

The Girl can be downright terrifying: the young boy who loses his skateboard probably hasn’t done anything to merit being chilled to the bone by her, when she leans in to ask him if he’s been good, then warns him (in one of the most authentically ghoulish horror-movie rasps since Mercedes McCambridge did voice duty for Linda Blair), “I can take your eyes out of your skull and give them to the dogs to eat.” We don’t, by the way, see the dogs of Bad City, but the local cat is unsettling enough: a naturally charismatic starer which looks like it’s taking a break from sitting in a Bond villain’s lap, and which gets the best close-up in the film.

Meanwhile in Bad City, a devilishly handsome young man named Arash (Arash Marandi) is coping with the depressed excesses of his overweight junkie dad Hossein (Marshall Manesh), and working as gardener and handyman to a rich family whose spoiled daughter, the recent recipient of a nose job, sees him as her latest toy.

Things take an overtly comic turn when Arash—something of a sweet-natured dork despite his quiffed rebel demeanor—attends a Halloween party as Dracula. Walking home the worse for wear in a too-baggy cape and really ill-fitting fangs, he meets the Girl, who “lures” him to her den—or rather, wheels her decidedly floppy prospective beau back to her place on the skateboard. Things turn romantic, at once chastely and very sensually, in a beautiful extended take, as Arash approaches her and she closes in—not, as you’d expect, on his neck, but on his chest. It all happens in swoony slow motion, but with a mirror ball spinning round and filling the room with sparkles at crazy speed: a magnificent, and inexplicably romantic, paradox of pacing that adds to the eerie romance of the scene.

The couple later tryst at dead of night at the local power plant, itself lit up like a jeweled city. Why at the power plant? For the chiaroscuro, of course—that seems to be what motivates Amirpour most. This is one of those films that are shot in black and white because a director is genuinely in love with the affective and expressive possibilities of that visual choice, and especially with its ability to draw magic out of night scenes: I’m reminded of another piece of black-and-white small-town dream romance, Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin (99), which used an eclipse as the narrative excuse for its midsummer night’s encounters. In her own nightscapes, Amirpour doesn’t mess around with half-measures: DP Lyle Vincent saturates his shadows with the inkiest of blackness (as does the graphic novel that Amirpour has created to accompany the film).

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a wayward, genuinely oneiric creation—look at its sudden arresting focus-pull on some oil derricks, and its graceful, gratuitous interlude of a transgender cowgirl figure dancing with a helium balloon. It manages to be tender, chilly, comic, and willfully bizarre all at once, but never has you wishing it would choose one register and stick to it. In his very enthusiastic recent review, David Thomson invokes not only David Lynch, but Vigo, Cocteau, and Buñuel, no less. Perhaps more modestly, A Girl Walks reminded me most of early Jarmusch, and of the general spirit of  late-Seventies/early-Eighties punk-influenced U.S. cinema (names like Scott B and Beth B, Amos Poe, Slava Tsukerman of Liquid Sky), because of Amirpour’s brisk disregard for genre norms, for the sense that she’s up for telling whatever story she wants to tell, any way she wants to tell it. While manifestly very polished and composed, the film nevertheless gives the impression that it’s making itself up—or dreaming itself into being—as it goes along.

There’s an oddly innocent blazing-youth romanticism about it, especially when the Girl and Arash bond over music. That feeling comes across all the more strongly because non-Farsi speakers will depend on the subtitles: it adds a tender but absurd irony to the revelation that the last song the Girl listened to was, of all things, Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Fortunately, there’s cooler stuff on the soundtrack: the Tom-Waits-in-Tehran opening number by Iranian band Kiosk, and some Morricone-ish fanfare by Federale, a group from Portland.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is bound to cause a stir in academic circles for the way that it blurs its Eastern and Western codes so thoroughly: making manifestly American settings stand in for an imaginary Iran, playing provocatively on the chador as Islamic garment and as vampire-cape substitute, having its heroine at once tender lover and murderous monster in a way that neither Anne Rice nor Stephenie Meyer would quite recognize. Overall, Amirpour’s film feels like an elaborately punkish code-scrambling gesture rather than a fully formed organic statement, but that doesn’t matter—it has style, grace, and imagination, and as artistic gestures go, could hardly be more devil-may-care. By the time it takes a final Aldrich-esque drive into the shadows, A Girl Walks Home has more than earned your attention—and got you wondering where that shadow-steeped road leads, either for its romantic duo or for Amirpour as audacious writer-director.

Watch A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night on Kanopy here: https://www.kanopy.com/product/girl-walks-home-alone-night

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