A vampire in a hijab is such a provocative image that I’m surprised it’s never been used before. This mashup of predatory, sexually charged vampire imagery and the hijab’s minimizing of a woman’s personality, body and mobility makes for a cracking incongruity that director Ana Lily Amirpour exploits to the max, turning a clumsy mass of heavy black cloth into her vampire antiheroine’s bat-wings.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, located in a bizarre future Iran. The streets are largely devoid of life and the inhabitants all housebound drug addicts or walled-in rich. The camera pans around the empty city, casually showing us a river bed full of rotting corpses. What the hell has gone wrong in this world?
Our hero is Arash (Arash Marandi), a young landscape gardener with nothing to his name other than a cool car. His father is a hopeless smack addict deep in hock to smalltime local kingpin Saeed (Dominic Rains) and his rich clients casually objectify him. Life here sucks, but then again, what do you expect when you live in a place called Bad City?
Enter the Vampire (Sheila Vand). She’s a taciturn, nameless presence, repeatedly stalking the streets of the city in search of a bloody meal. This is no typical movie monster though. Her motivations are never explicitly spelt out, but she appears to feed only on evildoers, sparing an abused prostitute and using her supernatural abilities to scare a child into behaving. But some are beyond redemption. Exploiting her beauty, a tattooed gangster invites her back to his house, and she coolly observes him snorting a few lines and then haplessly trying to seduce her, offering his finger for her to suck. With a wolfish grin out pop the fangs. Goodbye finger. Goodbye dealer.
Soon, Arash and the Vampire are thrown together. Arash, lost to the bliss of an ecstasy high, is staring at a lamp-post in a druggy daze when the two run into each other. He’s returning from a party in a Dracula outfit and the sight of him either amuses her, arouses her curiosity or simply spikes her pity. Whichever it is, she invites him back to her basement flat and the two dreamily listen to her record collection together. This is the genesis of the relationship that drives a very curious movie.
First and foremost, this film is cool. From its stark chiaroscuro photography to its electro-pop soundtrack and the copious eyeliner, the film reeks of loose, rebellious, arty cool. There’s a louche languidity throughout as well, as Amirpour is never in a hurry to cut away from a stylish pose or pretty composition. If you’re after horror I’d recommend you try elsewhere, as aside from a few vaguely suspenseful stalking sequences, the film quickly settles into a chilled out indie/art film groove and stays there for most of its runtime.
However, if you like Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch, you’ll probably dig this. The black and white photography recalls Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise and the mysteriously ruinous urban landscape is clearly influenced by Eraserhead. Rather than gouts of gore or witty one-liners, Amirpour prefers to find moments and hold them for as long as feasibly possible, most effectively in the marvellous scenes at the Vampire’s flat.
With Arash tripped out on party treats, the Vampire cues up her vinyl copy of Death by White Lies. To its pulsating electro-rock beat the two inch achingly slowly towards each other, he resting a hand on her statuesque shoulder while she gazes at him through mascara lashes with inscrutable desire. In this deeply erotic sequence, Amirpour perfectly captures the lost vagueness and enhanced tactility of MDMA, letting the audience drunkenly wallow in this seriously cool as all hell imagery.
Did I mention the film was cool yet? Well it is, but the problem is is that ‘cool’ is nearly all it is. The barebones plot functions more as a vehicle to shoot in hiply decrepit industrial locations than it tells us about the characters. I can understand keeping the Vampire as a largely silent enigma, but we don’t learn too much about Arash’s motivations either; resulting in the film that ambles to a fuzzy conclusion.
This fuzziness extends to the politics here as well. Simply being a girl vampire flick set in Iran grants the film a political dimension, inverting expectations of femininity in a theocratic Islamic state. Yet, this fantasy dystopia bears little visual or atmospheric relation to the Iran I’m familiar with from the news and Abbas Kiarostomi films.
Despite the Farsi language and Arabic graffiti, the scenery looks more like small-town California, exacerbated by the sight of our hero’s ultra Americana chrome-decked car creeping around the streets. Worse, despite the prominent use of the hijab, the film is completely drained of religious imagery, which seems like a wasted opportunity.
That said, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is idiosyncratic enough to warrant a watch. This is a perfect midnight movie, the dreamy ambience perfectly suited to late night viewing and trying to explain to your friends what you saw the next morning. You can quite reasonably criticise it for style over substance, but when the style is this stylish, substance can wait.