‘the best skateboarding Iranian vampire yet committed to screen‘ – Hugh McCabe on A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
A news story surfaced recently about a proposal from the mayor of Tehran to to cover the Iranian capital’s billboards with giant reproductions of modern and contemporary visual art. It’s a far cry from the civilisation-wrecking activities of Sunni extremists like Islamic State, and goes to show that even within a country like Iran, that is under the thumb of a deeply conservative religious ideology, there are many other, often contradictory, forces at work. Ana Lily Amirpour is a California-born second generation Iranian who claims that the idea for her debut feature film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, came to her when she donned the traditional women’s outfit, the chador, on a first-time visit to Tehran. As well as the expected feelings of restriction and repression there was something more unexpected: it made her feel like a bat.
There’s nothing not to like about the premise of the resulting film. A beautiful young chador-wearing pop music-loving vampire, known simply as The Girl (Sheila Vand), stalks the night-time streets of a desolate Iranian town, ruthlessly feeding on and murdering errant men. The film is shot in black and white, made on location in a dusty and desolate Californian town, and the dialogue is entirely in Farsi. There are rich pickings here for an exploration of gender roles both within and without Islamic societies and their complicated and fractious entanglements with Western cultures. But A Girl Walks Home … is not that kind of Iranian art-house vampire flick. What we get instead is a canny postmodern genre exercise that gleefully mashes up spaghetti westerns, film noir, comic fiction, 50s US pop culture, and low-budget horror. What we also get is the deadpan idiosyncratic style of early Jim Jarmusch. Indeed if Jarmusch had decided to make a vampire movie around the time of Down By Law or Mystery Train, it might well have looked a lot like this.
The film opens with its other principal character, Arash (Arash Marandi), carrying his cat through the streets of the appropriately named Bad City. Arash is an impossibly handsome Iranian James Dean: complete with quiff, white tee-shirt, leather jacket and cherished convertible. Bad City is a bleak place: low lying, sprawling and depopulated. It’s a modern-day Californian ghost town standing in for an imaginary Iran. Few people walk the streets, the only signs of life are the odd car in the distance. On the outskirts of town there is a huge trench into which, for no clear reason, dead bodies are being dumped, but actual live humans are relatively scarce. The town is ringed with giant oil extraction machinery and brooding power plants, but it’s unclear exactly who this power is being generated for. It’s not so much postindustrial as posthuman: machinery dominates the landscape and the humans meekly scuttle around at its feet.
Arash’s father is in hock to Saeed, a vile drug dealer and pimp, and when The Girl witnesses Saeed abusing the local streetwalker, she follows him home and administers some vampire street justice. The violence is satisfyingly savage and is also the means by which Arash and The Girl first come into contact. What follows is your good old-fashioned vampire-human love story, but one where the vampire gets around on a skateboard and dances alone in a bedroom covered with posters of Madonna, The Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. The Girl is a terrific creation. Skulking around at night, her deep black chador makes her look like a hole in the world. At one point she takes time out to frighten the life out of a young kid, warning him that she will be watching until the end of his days to make sure that he is “a good boy”. At another she murders a tramp for no apparent reason: just in case we are getting too comfortable with the righteous vampire on the side of justice. As she herself says at one point: “I’m bad. You don’t know the things I’ve done”. The relationship between The Girl and Arash is both quirky and touching. Their first official date (which takes place underneath Bad City’s hulking power plant) is consummated by Arash piercing her ears for her with a safety pin. Blood and penetration all in one go.
A Girl Walks Home … oozes style, and it looks and sounds marvellous. Amirpour has clearly seen more than her fair share of Sergio Leone movies and the deserted ghost-town schtick is brought off to perfection. The sound design is particularly effective in this regard. The whistling wind and cricket noises are tumbleweed brought to life. The constant low-level rumbling of machinery and traffic adds to the general sense of mechanistic foreboding. However, after coming up with such a great premise and engrossing opening act, the film seriously runs out of steam in its second half, as if Amirpour doesn’t quite know where to take it from there. There’s not enough narrative to keep us hooked on the story and not enough horror to keep us on the edge of our seats. Amirpour has resisted any reading of the film as some sort of cross-cultural feminist parable and this is fair enough, but it also serves to rob the film of some of its potential.
The film’s best moments come when it surrenders completely to the impulse to ramp up the style without worrying about the substance. The scene where The Girl and Arash fall for each other is marvellous. She brings Arash back to her room one night and instead of ripping his neck open, slowly turns to gaze into his eyes while London 80s revivalists White Lies blast away on the soundtrack. It’s the most affecting and expressive music in the movies moment since Sameena Jabeen Ahmed’s turn dancing in a caravan to Patti Smith in Catch Me Daddy. A similarly spellbinding and hallucinogenic party scene occurs earlier on when Arash tries his hand at drug dealing while dressed, appropriately enough, as Dracula.
So, there is a lot to admire here and plenty of reasons to look forward to her next one, which is apparently a post-apocalyptic cannibal love story whose cast includes Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey. In the meantime though we get to enjoy the best skateboarding Iranian vampire yet committed to screen. And I don’t think it’s giving too much away to reveal that, in the end, only lovers are left alive.