A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a stylish noir throwback that doesn’t quite manage to be anything but stylish. Set in a mythical, dream-like “Bad City” it attempts to reclaim the story of a female vampire; staking the depraved streets of a surreal Tehran bursting with pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Dealing with love, jealousy, and issues of identity the film’s pulse is slowed to a state of undeath and one is left baffled at the meaning we are supposed to gain from it.
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Screenplay: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Runtime: 99 minutes.
Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Plot: Told in the surreal, fairy-tale place of “Bad City”, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night documents the evenings of a mysterious vampire as she preys on the sorrow and depravity of those around her. Somewhat of an innocent waif, despite her surroundings, the girl runs into a handsome young man who perhaps offers her human connection beyond her isolated and evening-bound life. Things do not go smoothly; as their love is interrupted by pimps, drug dealers, and a whole lot of slow dancing.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Review: Ana Lily Amirpour is undoubtedly an extremely talented director, just not a very mature one yet. This makes the forcibly beautiful but decidedly under-thought A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night a hard film to recommend to anyone but the overly curious. Oozing style and pretension from every black and white frame, the film follows a young girl (Sheila Vand) in the mythical Iranian locale of “Bad City,” who spends her night observing the depravity of its residents and reveals herself to be a powerful vampire who is not above a touch of revenge. Her un-life of ennui changes when she meets Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man trying to earn an honest living while managing his drug-addicted father (Marshall Manesh). Arash is hounded by the local drug dealer and pimp (Dominic Rains), a problem that the Girl is quick to dispatch. This kindles a slow burning, symbolic relationship that forms the heart of the film and offers the two lovers the hope of escape.
The meaning of the film is unfortunately obvious and simplistic, as Amirpour is at pains to portray her heroine as self actualised and powerful within a society that firmly limits the role of women. Her message is delivered through the interplay of the Girl’s deceptively innocent and vulnerable appearance, while in a bravura scene confronting the local pimp she quickly reveals her fangs. Amirpour is adept at conveying the feel of two different spaces; the public spaces, where one must be covered, and the private spaces where one’s passions and true identity can be unleashed. Playing on the contrast between these two spaces, Amirpour wants to imply that the decay of Bad City stems directly from this unnatural dichotomy. Just like her vampire heroine appears to have two natures, so too must the citizens of BadCity split themselves between their two lives. Some are more influential and able to overstep these bounds than others, such as the pimp, but the director generally targets these characters as the worst the city has to offer.
A simple enough critique, and a nice twist on a vampire tale set in Iran; but nowhere near original enough or well executed to make the film the statement the director seems to hope it will be. The film is glacially paced, and the dialogue cryptic in a manner that suggests an incomplete mastery of the material rather than a deeper meaning. The plot is incredibly straightforward and brazenly melodramatic; forced to create interest out of a very limited number of predictable beats. This explains a lot of Amirpour’s amateurish stalling as a director; which one can easily see she hopes to be read as giving the film’s deeper meaning room to breathe. So we are treated to long, slow, languorously shot dance scenes and much of the incidental movement of the film comes across as a Tarantino-esque directorial urge to share Amirpour’s favourite songs with the audience with some satisfactorily slick accompanying visuals. Not much content is provided to fill the frame, though, leading to very awkward scenes of characters meeting, not doing much in particular, and listening to music from radios or records as a result.
It’s also a bit hard to swallow Amirpour’s artistic pretensions, as she drowns the film in overreaching symbolism. We are meant to be enraptured by the loaded symbolism of eggs and balloons and plums, suggesting innocence or potency or freedom. These symbols go largely uninterrogated by the surrounding action of the film. The aesthetic plays heavily to a hipster retro fetishisation, including references to 1950s greasers and sad late-century minimalism. The film loves its shots of oil rigs, its point of view takes, and its metaphors for exile. It follows the logic of a dream, but contains none of its compelling urgency or meaning. Many will object to the manner in which the film lingers over every element, as if it has nothing else to do. The performances of the cast are adequate to the task; with many of actors struggling with the unrewardingly broad archetypes they have been thrown into (abused prostitute who can’t quit, for example). The film desperately, desperately tries for noir cool and becomes intensely grating as a result – particularly in the final scenes, where our characters drive off into the night. ‘Idiots and rich people are the only ones who think things can change the world’ one character remarks, in a line that could easily have been struck off the first draft of a Chandler novel by a judicious editor.
Which is all the more a shame, because Amirpour can be a stunning director when she drags herself away from cliché and vacuity. The power of her compositions are self-apparent, and some elements – such as a bridge over an unexplained pile of bodies – genuinely work as a startling but subtle and surreal statements. A Girl Walks Home at Night wants to be a feminist, ex-patriot reclamation of its own material; but it is far too languid and blank a film to move beyond being stylish, but empty.
Rating: Two and a half stars.