Wednesday, March 18, 2015


[A version of this review appeared in the Portland Observer, here:]

Vampires are endlessly fascinating, and endlessly versatile. Something about the idea of a class of immortal beings, lurking in the shadows and choosing victims among the living because they must, persists in our collective imagination, fascinating terrain for exploring our own shadow regions. Some of what we find there is just silly--like the lessons of the so-called "Twilight Saga" (the best lover will leave you bruised but grateful, and even a very protective 105-year-old cannot be expected to have thought through the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy).

Two more worthy examples of the genre are "What We Do in the Shadows" (now in theaters), a mockumentary about three squabbling vampires sharing a bachelor flat in Wellington, New Zealand, which spoofs the genre to hilarious effect, and "Let the Right One In," which used its vampire story to probe ideas about bullying and outsiders.

The first feature film of Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," is arguably the most original and visually arresting of them all. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and drawing from Iranian and American/European pop cultures and from several different eras of cinema and music, Amirpour has assembled a compelling depiction of feminist agency and longing.

The mythical Bad City, where the film is set, feels straight out of a graphic novel. A bleak California-esque town, its hills seem crowded with a subdivision of oil wells, and a ravine on the edge of town is littered with corpses that appear to have been simply discarded. We don't know how they got there, or why.

It quickly appears that we are not in California--but it can't quite be Iran either. Though it takes awhile to orient, the spare dialogue is uttered in Farsi, and there are plenty of little clues that women are not in charge. The camera floats through this nether world, lighting on a handsome young man, a sort of Persian James Dean, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and driving a 1950s Thunderbird. He is hassled by a ruthless, drug-dealing pimp, to whom James Dean's addict father owes money. A prostitute past her prime walks the streets for the pimp, and absorbs his abuse with an air of melancholy. A rich girl toys with James Dean, who tends the garden on her family's estate. A tattered boy wanders about, watching and begging for money.

The film takes its time before introducing the girl who walks home alone at night. Early clues suggest that the town trades in danger and depravity--it is the kind of place where one could go missing and no one would look for you. The slight girl lurks in the shadows at night, wandering about in a chador, the dark, floor-length head covering that Muslim women sometimes wear. Why does she seem threatening, this slight girl in her dark cape, which we in the West read as a signal of women's oppression?

In Muslim culture, at least as popularly depicted, women are treated as though both dangerous and powerless. They must be covered because they are dangerous, yet they may be ordered about and controlled. The girl who lurks in the streets of this bad city later calls herself bad--but is she? She is a vampire, and is no doubt the most dangerous in a cast of dangerous characters--but does she also embody a kind of virtue?

Director Amirpour is less interested in plot than in what the girl's various encounters convey about her and her subjects. With the pimp the girl indulges a love of dark eyeliner and lipstick, and he mistakes her as an easy object of conquest. I noticed I felt most anxious watching the girl lurk around the tattered boy, but her encounter with him ends up being particularly satisfying. Is he a good boy? She persists in asking him this question, and we shiver at its urgency and wonder at his response. What does she mean to do with the information? By the time she encounters the drug addict father and the prostitute, she has taken to wandering the streets on the tattered boy's abandoned skateboard. By then we know the girl to be fearsome, but not to everyone.

The girl encounters the Persian James Dean in between other encounters, and finally takes him home one night when she finds him wandering, lost, after he has drunk too much at a costume party. He is dressed as Dracula, and he wonders if she is scared of him. She isn't--but should he be scared of her? He doesn't appear to be, and one begins to notice his relative innocence and its effect on the girl. In these scenes, the girl appears wounded, and full of longing. She says little, leaving you to wonder what intrigues her about the young man, whether she is lonely, whether she finds her vampire life confining.

Among other things, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is about women's power. Limited though their options might be by social convention and by the fears and expectations thrust upon them, all three women here seem more awake than any of the men, and to varying degrees--the vampire most of all--they act with a degree of intention, even assorting a sort of power. There is even a transgender woman lurking about, not really part of the film's thin plot and perhaps even invisible to others, but also conveying an appearance full of intention. I think Amirpour is playing with ideas about women's power in a context of oppression.

You can dwell on these questions, as you watch--or you can simply enjoy the beauty of her subjects, in their melancholy dark world, and savor the film's sly humor and its plundering of Middle Eastern fusion and underground Iranian rock music. Amirpour has assembled treasures from everything from Madonna to spaghetti westerns to David Lynch; these allusions may be simply playful, or she may be saying something sly about themes running through art in all its forms.

No matter how you choose to watch, if you surrender to a mood of appreciation and languor (a bit like that of the Persian James Dean), Amirpour's film, and the girl of its title, will capture you.

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