The Girl, the Home, the Night, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s Glorious Cinematic Vampirism
Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a revelry of cinematic styles and innovation. Sasho Pshenko revisits the Iranian-American director's 2014 debut feature and explores the implications for home and loneliness hidden beneath its aesthetic playfulness.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film, 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, sparked a lot of conversations since its premiere. Mainly, that’s because it is a well made film, rich with narrative and visual novelties which lure one to go on a tangent discussing them. However, it is also quite a striking and provocative film for another reason. At the end of the day, one need only look at its title, and a brief description, to see how it comments on certain social phenomena – unfortunately very much present in reality – as well as movie cliches derived from said phenomena. A young girl, wearing a chador, roams the streets of Bad City, a place teeming with vice-ridden and dangerous people, alone at night. She might seem like a prime candidate for a victim of any kind of assault at the hands of any of the city’s inhabitants, yet she is, in fact, revealed to be the predator herself. The Girl is a vampire who traps these dangerous individuals and, well, does to them what vampires do. The film’s premise sets it up as a witty, simple, yet effective, feminist subversion, which, were it not for the other elements that construct it, would have only been known for its quirky play on sociopolitical commentary. Yet, it can be seen as more than that. In fact, its strange genre – a black and white mixture of spaghetti-western and neo-noir, situated in a fictional place in the Middle East – is the mere introduction into Amirpour’s tonal play with the aesthetic characterization of the film. It is precisely this play of style which enables one to see the semantic play on the film’s narrative and theme hidden underneath. The film, intentionally uncanny in its mere premise, seems to have something else, even more uncanny, wriggling underneath the simple love story which it provides us with. The first thing one notices is the film’s clear break with any referential, realistic attempts at painting a world; the long, steady shots, the empty stares of the characters, the lingering camera fascinated by some banal décor, singled out only because of its superficial beauty, the sharp, high-contrast space and the slowed-down, dragged-out time, which distort any and all movement, construct a dream-world of sorts, a plane which could only ever exist as a film. This poetic dream-world is precisely what dominates A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, much more than the Girl, or any of the other characters. It is also, as it were, the titular home. The atmosphere is the home and the Girl is that atmosphere's physical agent, its only organic, belonging inhabitant. Rather than the small house which is supposed to be her real home, it is the streets at night that truly enable her to assume her recognizable look and bring the film’s main purpose to life. This is why all the other characters are nothing more than guests, mere visitors, lost in those dark streets. The Girl’s home is a labyrinth, a spider’s web, she being the spider, the labyrinth – the city. She isn’t, in fact, walking towards her home alone at night, but is walking inside her home, which is the night itself – the high contrast between the crisp, white streetlights and the shadows – into which she melts. In contrast, the other characters only live on Bad City’s margins, on the margins of the Girl’s territory. Their only space is their home, hidden, well-lighted, secure. Until, that is, they dare interfere with her. She, like all vampires, has the ability to enter other people’s homes, under certain conditions. This not only establishes her unshaken spatio-temporal supremacy, but also asserts the city’s oppressive, heavy judgment. Bad City, a kind of dysfunctional purgatory, where everyone lives burdened and suffocated by their own crime and vice, manifested as the dark emptiness that characterizes this realm, where even the Girl herself pursues her demonic life as an endless chore, devoid of any pleasure or emotion, manages to penetrate, like a poisonous fog, even the closed, comfortable homes of its wretched inhabitants. All the drug lords, pimps, and murderers seem nothing more than meek, pathetic vermin, desperately fighting for breath, only to be devoured by the dark air’s unforgiving emissary. Yet, this pitch-black tone can only proceed in one direction – that of careless levity. The first way to observe the film’s subtle relieving of its own shackles lies in a simple reflection on the aforementioned state of things; the Girl is nothing more than a boogeyman, a fairy-tale like creature which exists only to scare little children. Part of the film’s irony is that the “children” are actually adults, so wrapped up in their own little worlds of addiction and prejudice, that they are, in essence, but naughty boys and girls. The inside of the home, the comfort of the bed, is perfectly in line with this – the children should be inside, obeying their parents, going to sleep in time, or else the vampire will sneak under the covers and kill them. At one point, Amirpour even introduces the Girl to an actual boy, who she scares in a typical fairy-tale fashion – only to steal his skateboard. Which is where we begin to feel the levity creeping in. The Girl is, after all, just a girl, who, like everyone else in this hell-hole feels lonely and wants to have fun. She, too, is a child, albeit one tasked with scaring other children. She is the kernel of comedy at the heart of the film’s tragedy. Which leads precisely into the second, and more profound, way in which this film breaks with its unflinching mass of suffocating darkness: fun.
If the other citizens of Bad City, corrupted as they might be, are supposed to represent the remnants of life in the Girl’s wake, resisting the dark emptiness which she ushers, then they can only be said to be doing this in one way: by summoning the ancient powers of pop-culture. Each one of them seems to express a certain pop-culture niche, a collection of objects which create a tiny territory, a world-within-the-world of sorts, demarcated by the aesthetic choices with which they decorate their houses, dress (or dress-up), and embody with their actions. Thus we have Hossein’s traditional, Middle-Eastern home mixed with a heroin-addict’s paraphernalia. Shaydah’s spoiled, rich-girl mansion. Saeed’s weight-lifting, cocaine-snorting, tiger-rug, douche-bag aesthetic. The Girl’s own home, a shrine to Hollywood, overstuffed with movie posters and music tapes. All of this topped off by Arash – the co-protagonist of this film, who is the literal embodiment of this Hollywood pop-culture. It is as if James Dean’s Jim Stark just jumped from Rebel Without a Cause into Amirpour’s film and decided to disguise himself as Dracula for Halloween.
The blend of this over-the-top kitsch with the film’s somber, art-house style, not only serves to distinguish Amirpour’s work as an eye-grabbing play on genre, but also helps us delve into the story, while commenting on its own paradoxical nature – a cinephile’s chimera offspring torn between the strikingly serious and the parodically self-reflexive. And it is here that we must look for the main aesthetic purpose of the film (at least from the point of view of this reading); a catharsis neither from a tragic nor from a comedic climax, but from a strange mixture of both. Not in vain does the film at times remind one of some of the works of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino – both famous for such strange, violent, tragicomic, western-noir atmospheres, already over-saturated with other references, references to references ad infinitum. Amirpour takes their self-referentiality and elevates it to a yet another level, intensifying the seriousness, while constantly undermining it with subtle hints at its satiric underbelly. And she ultimately celebrates this tonal unification with the naive, innocent, almost teenage-like unification of the Girl and Arash.
The film’s core love story, so simple and absurd in contrast to both the city’s dark desert landscape and the little “oases” of hyperbolic pop-culture strewn across it, conceived with their romantic dance and mediated by Arash’s cat, whose almost supernatural presence seems to be able to open all of Bad City’s doors – literal or metaphorical – and which seems to be subtly announcing the changes to come, the death of some characters, a lucky turn in life for others – it all epitomizes the union of the mystical and the humorous. What’s in the cards for the young couple is a departure, the toppling of the hierarchy of Bad City and its dissolution into the depths of its own shadows. Where are Arash and the Girl headed in the end? Where will–where can she go? She is a vampire, after all, and once the sun is up – with her still in Arash’s car – who knows what fate might befall her. And Arash? Where could he dream of going, with a blood-sucking monster, which also happens to be his father’s murderer, in tow?
To a new home, presumably. Once the Girl is no longer alone, having realized how unfulfilling it is to roam her old home at night, she can only look for a new home somewhere away – probably outside the borders of the film-world itself. As for Arash, in much simpler terms, without a family, without friends and without debts, he too has the freedom to join the Girl’s melancholic crusade into a new dream. Such an ending is, fittingly, a hopeless tragedy. In which scenario could these two possibly be happy? But is it also not like that a slapstick comedy? Like the end of a sitcom’s episode? Nothing is resolved, in fact, even more problems are created, but that’s precisely what makes it all so charming. We’re in for a funny adventure outside the known world, with an immature cinephile and his morose, vampire girlfriend. Could we imagine a better send-off than the one Amirpour gave us? ▲
Sasho Pshenko is a Film Aesthetics graduate from the University of Oxford, with a background in Comparative Literature. Torn between desires for both academia and practical filmmaking, he spends his time pondering over various topics from the fields of literature, film, and philosophy.