A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

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There's little else but dust, drugs, and industry in the decaying Iranian town known to its residents as Bad City.  They whittle their days away in despair while grasping at some image of what they would like to be at night.  During these moments of escape a girl walks in, unassuming and quiet, while hiding a secret.  Ana Lily Amirpour writes and directs A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, and Mozhan Marnò.

My shadowOne of the most engaging forms of film which I've learned about over the last few years is diasporic cinema.  It consists primarily of creators who have become exiled, either through force or through lack of options, from their homeland and try to reconnect with some idea of where they came from.  Atom Egoyan's early films are rife with this, most notably in Calendar, as there is no unified language, the cinematic chronology is scattershot, and the characters are on always on the outside of society.  The vampire story, beginning with Bram Stoker's Dracula, shares many of these qualities and Ana Lily Amirpour, with her stunning debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, pushes the vampire story to new cinematic heights through her hypnotic blend of diasporic elements.

Amirpour describes her film as an Iranian vampire Western.  But there is an unmistakable tinge of nostalgia, meant in the sense of memory paired with painful longing, as threaded throughout Amirpour's film is an attempt to grasp a society which is always in a state of decay but never dead.  This nostalgia mixes with the Western and Iranian iconography Amirpour borrows from liberally and mixes with horror, romance, a love of disco, and embrace of transgendered lifestyles.  After all, the vampire is nothing if not a gender-fluid construct as men and women alike must learn to penetrate and suck in the essence of their once-fellow humans, and Amirpour works that gender fluidity into crisp black and white images which are downright magical at times.

If that seems like an unusual result for a vampire film, it's because this is unlike any vampire film I've seen in the last few years.  It doesn't have the high camp value of the Twilight films, of which I'm a big fan, or the creeping dread of Let the Right One In.  Amirpour moves from scenes where gentle dancing mixes with synthetic beats to moments of grotesque violence as a local alpha male realizes too late his swinging dick doesn't please everyone.  Amirpour constructs her narrative in episodes as the unnamed girl works her way through the town and touches on the lives of its residents in different ways.  There is a larger narrative, but that pales in comparison to the rich collecting of images which deal with Amirpour's feelings on gender, religion, industrialization, and that unique touch of Western civilization which brings doom.

From the first frame on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is striking to look at.

From the first frame on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is striking to look at.

The crucial decision for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night's success is Amirpour's choice of black and white cinematography.  The result puts truth to the idea that black and white is the color of reality when it comes to cinema and color is the illusion.  Through the black and white images we are able to focus on how the different gendered images morph and interact, sometimes violently, with one another while remaining at just enough of a distance away to not recoil from the violence.

This also brings out the work of Amirpour's secret weapon - the cinematography of Lyle Vincent.  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is filled with some of the most lovely and monolithic shadows working in concert with the images of decaying life and constant presence of industrial society.  These range from the simple, where a close up of some seemingly healthy plants is rack-focused into the oil pumps drilling away in the distance, to the complex, where the vampiric girl (Sheila Vand) rejects Arash's (Arash Marandi) offer of companionship.  As she walks away Arash is slowly washed in her shadow, which grows even larger as she walks into the distance, and signals the arrival of more trains to carry the oil their community produces.  A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is packed with visual storytelling such as this, showing how the gender fluid and dangerous reality of the girl's mysterious past can be so easily pushed aside for crushing heteronormativity and industrialization.

Picking out just one of these moments as the best is a fool's errand.  The girl and Arash's nighttime meeting by the trains is one such moment.  But another high point which really stresses the gender fluidity comes from their first meeting.  We know she can pierce men, and invites the drugged and lost Arash into her apartment.  He approaches her from behind as light reflected from a disco ball dances on the walls and she anticipates more of the same male hostility that she encountered from an earlier drug dealer.

A mid-film synth-filled musical moment is one of many enchanting sequences.

A mid-film synth-filled musical moment is one of many enchanting sequences.

Instead, in a remarkable image, he allows his neck to be bared and they choose not to kiss, but remain still as she listens to him breathe.  It's magical on its own, but the complexity behind the images is staggering.  We have the man pretending to be stronger than he is while dressed as Dracula, already a sex fluid icon, encountering an actual predatory vampire performing as a woman, and she recognizes his willingness to be fluid with his gender underneath the bravado so they might share in a moment of peace.  Then the scene switches to a transvestite doing a happy daytime dance with a balloon near some live wires and we realize how easily the vampire could eliminate Arash, but they arrive at some understanding because of their willingness to put normative signifiers aside and simply be with one another.

These are the heart of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night but, sadly, not the only substance.  While there are numerous magical scenes such as this there is a similar amount of filler or weak sequences.  Arash's father (Marshall Manesh) is a junkie who works well as an image of Western toxicity to his Iranian spirit, but in action is just another cinematic junkie who scratches his arms and does nothing we haven't seen before.  Another weak scene has the girl speak to an abused prostitute (Mozhan Marnò) who share words about sadness and then part ways.  The dialogue is so on the nose about the prostitute's dilemma and the alienation of modern society that it's sad Amirpour did not try and work their relationship out through images instead.  The two side stories join up in a way which links the girl and Arash in many more ways, but are a weak overarching narrative of clumsy characterization and dialogue compared to the miracle of many of the other scenes.

But its the miracle of those moments which makes A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night such a special film.  Amirpour has created a world that meshes so many images together - the '50s greaser, the indie-rock superstar, the superhero - and managed to instill them with a sadness which belongs neither in its Iranian setting nor the California landscape where she filmed.  Amirpour has created something haunting, lovely, and entirely her own.

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Tail - A Girl Walks Home Alone At NightA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, and Mozhan Marnò.

Posted by Andrew

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