Just when I’d gotten over using “new” films for the weekly Midnight Screenings column, a film had to come along that would have been unethical to put anywhere but in the halls of the Midnight Screening. Next week we’ll return to older films, with an especially fitting two-fer of classic ’70s efforts important to the development of the Midnight Screening idea in real life and not simply on the internet. It promises fun, but in the meantime just check out that movie poster to the left. Seriously, even if you don’t read the review (which you absolutely should, if I have anything to say about it), just bask in the look of that poster. It speaks for itself.
It’s fitting that the year which brought us Jonathan Glazer’s wonderfully impenetrable vamp Under the Skin also sees a young whippersnapper with an almost fully formed filmic voice comes to challenge him for the title of “best pointedly empty, barren art-house quasi-vampire pic about gender with a fascinatingly obtuse visual aesthetic” of the year. Incidentally, that is a competition I did not know needed to exist, nor did I ever expect it to, but I am jumping with joy at the fact that it does.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not Glazer’s though, although they share many features. They are both style-as-substance Frankenstein’s monsters composed of the fleshiest bits of other films and styles, and both dabble in the seemingly contradictory realms of neo-realism and hyper-stylized, highly-sensory aesthetic-based filmmaking and meld their diverse cross-hatch of styles and interests together into a fully unified, totally unique voice of their own. But they are not the same, and in certain ways they are almost clearly counteracting one another.
Firstly, Amirpour’s film is much more forgiving than the willfully difficult Under the Skin, and it is also much more aware that it is a film. References in tone and mood if not specifics to films past abound (the most noticeable probably being Val Lewton’s darlings I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People, another study in gender here flipped on its head to give agency and morality to the female stalker). Yet the allusions never feel didactic or clinical. As vampirish Sheila Vand, draped in a stunningly geometric outfit of chador and horizontally stripped black-and-white T-shirt, wanders the streets of the ghost town that is Bad City and does what she will with those who harm the women of the neighborhood (usually her actions involve sucking their blood), the film approaches horror but smothers difficulty in beautifully dusty cinematography and a particularly lush soundscape. The sound design in the film is one of the best of the year, imbuing every action with passion and really showcasing how unoccupied and arid the location around the action is. Each single solitary sound fills in the air around it, for Bad City is such an empty limbo for lost souls that there is nothing to block the penetrating noises. If it is a horror, it attains the tempo and demeanor of a jazzy late-night beat club, especially in the film’s second half when Vand develops an unconventional relationship with social outcast Arash (Arash Marandi).
It also probably helps that Amirpour’s film comes from a female voice. While feminist arguments can be made for Glazer’s “detached, alien creature in the body of a woman preys on and kills men who do not ever try to understand her” narrative, they are much more cogent for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Amirpour does not trade nearly as heavily in mystifying imagery of her detached female figure, gifting her with an oddly humanist touch by allowing us penetrating glimpses into her home life. Beyond this, Amirpour’s film is undoubtedly a moral claim, her distanced and abused female vampire stalking the streets of desolation and loneliness to do harm to the abusers of women in the society around her. This isn’t an open-shut case, though, and some of the vampire’s actions problematize this (at one point she breaks her own assumed code and feeds on a homeless man, perhaps providing respite for the unaccompanied and left out among us as well, not always judging society but sometimes serving as a melancholic and unfortunate end to its oppressions). But in general, if Glazer’s film is a nihilist fable of human alienation, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is much more of a humanistic trance, finding community and care in those left out in the cold by an uncaring society. If Under the Skin is a dreamlike nightmare, Girl is a would-be nightmare that ends up a dream.
Location is also key to Girl’s sphinx-like, prismatic quality. On one hand, it is diegetically set in Iran, albeit in the fictional Bad City. Yet, at the same time, everything about the film pushes back against this specified setting, imbuing Bad City with the landscape-of-the-mind quality perfect for the desolate, barren, ever-suffering ghost town it is. It seems artificially stripped of presence, as if only the essential figures were plucked out of their everyday lives to exist within Amirpour’s moral fable. There is absolutely no sense of geography, and this serves double duty to abstract the film and to internalize it, to make it the manifestation of its lonely, down-trodden characters more than a location of the real world. The ghost-like, black-and-white cinematography contrasts beautifully with the sensual soundtrack to find subtle poetry in the quiet action of two social loners alighting the emptiness of the landscape with their youthful passion. The camera, as with the characters, intermixes woe and desperation with moments of youthful joy and bittersweet togetherness.
If nothing else then, the film is undoubtedly about youth, and about the eternal beauty of youth left out in the cold by a society that doesn’t know what to do with them (the few adults in the film are given no humanity whatsoever). It is a slightly-punk, slightly-trip-hop downbeat Tangerine Dream of a film about outsider beauty, the vampire duds Arash donning at a party not only suggesting the crooning, icy cool of the vampire, ever a stand-in for society’s current-day outsiders, and his one-ness with Vand’s Girl character. Instead, it also suggests the ever-youthful fear of growing old and the turn to fantasy and horror to retain one’s youth in putting on the mask of a figure that doesn’t age.
But Vand wears a chador, a Muslim garment covering the female head and upper body but leaving the face uncovered, throughout, and any claim to the film’s abstract, de-contextualized tone poem misses this. Amirpour unmistakably teases out a connection between the chador imagery and Vand’s gender-avenging vampire herself. She re-appropriates the chador, often seen in the West as evidence of the Middle East’s oppressive backwardness, as a feminist protest symbol to do harm to men who would have their way with women. In this way, if Under the Skin is vehemently abstract, Amirpour’s film exists on the cusp of the internal and external, where timely and location-specific commentary bleed into timeless, mood-over-narrative explorations of motion and sound. That the film was photographed in California, and not Iran, seems not only a necessary happenstance, but a gesture toward the film’s existence less in one location than in a shared mental space owned by youthful loners basking in collective despondency. But gender is there, and modern Iranian society is there, assuming you look for it.
Perhaps the only real criticism of the film then, if it suits you as a criticism (I see it as a strength), is that it is so conceptual (even if it is never nonrepresentational in the way of Under the Skin) and so multifaceted (in that it is so invested in piling themes on themes and investing layered meaning into references) that it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own weight. But for a debut film, the sheer volume of what’s going on shows most of all that Amirpour is still herself hungry in her youthful passion. If the form and judicious consideration of what to include and what not to include isn’t quite fully there yet, and if it means the film grows a little long in the tooth, its fangs are always showing, and it packs a potent, bloody, suitably messy bite. Best of all, it’s already ready to go back into the fray and grab another hunk of film flesh for itself to devour. The better balance will come with age.
In the meantime though, this sort of frenzied commitment and sometimes uncontrolled zest in a young director is absolutely what the film world circa 2015 could use more of. Amirpour has made a film about modern youth that exhibits, when it needs to, both the sad tiredness and booming vitality that characterizes the daily dialectic of youthful spirit. For now, Amirpour’s debut is an altogether luxuriant, succulent film, dense with idea and inventive style to add texture to idea. It even prefaces would-be critics of its hipster aesthetic (those who might say it falsely ingests other images and mixes them together haphazardly) by infusing a subtle layer of obvious artifice throughout. There is so much in Amirpour’s stew, a work first and foremost of space that bridges the mental and the physical with spooky lust, solemn wrath, and keen awareness of when to be sloth-like and when to gluttonously devour film’s past to push it toward its future. Amirpour has places to go, and we should be thankful that she’s defiantly staking out her own path to get there.