An Iranian skateboarding vampire movie, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a quirky, stylish addition to the genre.
The Exterminating Angelby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Describing her debut feature as an “Iranian vampire spaghetti western”, British-born but LA-based Californian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour has done something subtly earth-shattering with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. The title innocently but enigmatically conjures up the tropes of the vampire genre, but only this time this girl ain’t no victim. It’s an exclusive club, cinema’s female vampires – with Catherine Deneuve, Kate Beckinsale and most recently Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive its most notorious denizens. But now there’s a new girl in town, in the shape of Sheila Vand – the unnamed girl at the centre of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, quietly subversive with her eyeliner and short bobbed hair, but also vaguely ominous, slowly skateboarding in her black veil. The hijab here becomes a fetishised object – that swoops and shudders like Bela Lugosi’s cape. A garment of modesty becomes a show of power, as one girl takes on Iran’s good, bad and ugly.
Arash (Arash Marandi) steals a cat and takes it home to his father, a heroin junkie since the death of his wife. Unable to pay his dealer and pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), Arash’s cabriolet is taken as collateral. While gardener Arash steals a pair of diamond earrings from his rich employer ‘The Princess’ (Rome Shadanloo), Saeed visits his prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò), spied upon by a girl in a veil (Sheila Vand). The girl returns to her basement room to reapply her eyeliner and listen to some indie music, but it’s not long before she’s wandering the streets again and bumps into the pimp – a bad guy who gets his comeuppance when he takes her back to his place. On her way out though, she bumps into Arash desperate to get his car back. And after he picks up Saeed’s stash and hands out some pills at the princess’s costume party, he bumps into the girl again when he’s too buzzed to stand. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship, if only they can make it work.
Super-stylish with a delirious score of White Lies, Radio Tehran and Federale, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a postmodern banque of genre delicacies – from the vampire ticks that recall Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive with its rapid swooping camera movements and its telescopic fangs to the Tarantino-infused spaghetti westerns of oil pumpjacks, rumbling trains and mandolin-scored melancholy. But with its monochrome indie moodiness, there are also suggestions of Gus van Sant’s Portland, or of Tim Burton’s suburban wonderland with Arash’s nostalgic James Dean white T-shirt, his soft-top car and those pristine box hedges. In fact, there’s not much new to Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but with its stunning long-shot camera angles and its deliciously glacial pacing, it’s a pastiche homage to those neo-noir masters.
But while Ana Lily Amirpour might be the only woman in this boys’ club of über-stylemasters, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is surprisingly old-fashioned. Perhaps its the borrowed set-pieces, but while ripped Saeed might tease the Girl with a strip-wiggle, it’s mostly the women that do the dancing and the men that do the looking, the camera adoring as Arash watches the Princess dance or as Hossein watches Atti. But as a symbol of female sexuality and potency, the vampire is set apart from the other women – hidden from view beneath her ghoulish veil. But while it’s tempting to look for a political reading to Amirpour’s film, like its filming locations (shot entirely in California) there’s very little of Iran in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It’s a purely cinematic morality where men fall into good, bad and ugly, and the women are either whores or vampires. And it’s the Girl who provides the moral backbone to Amirpour’s film – dealing out death with every bite. And while she has no problem killing the bad men Saeed and Hossein, she curbs her bloodlust to let the innocent boy go free. Though why the homeless guy gets it is beyond me!
With patriarchy divided into good and evil, there’s a not-too-subtle code to Amirpour’s men – such as the pimp Saeed, himself adorned with tigers, his house with stuffed deer, and the backwards-looking, heroin-pushing Hossein – the symbol of an older generation holding back the innocent, anachronistic Arash. Ultimately, he’s freed by the Girl and her vigilante violence, but Amirpour’s ending – although enigmatic – is underwhelming in its restraint. There are some breathtaking moments, such as Arash and the Girl’s bedsit-set encounter, but also some awkward camera movements. The foley soundtrack is nostalgically appealing, but perhaps a little too much with all its rumbles and pulses, which like the camera’s sweeps and lens flares puts style over substance. The story takes place in an over-stylised aspic in which even the thoughts appear to be in slow motion, relying on genre tropes and a gallivant cat to herd the film into a disappointingly obvious conclusion. At its worst it’s a vacuous film with a pop-video aesthetic (sometimes unintelligible – such as the scene of a drag queen dancing with a black balloon) but at its best A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is an unashamedly enjoyable swoop into the cinematic pleasures of genre and style.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is released on 22nd May 2015 in the UK