Film Focus: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

It is clear that in the 21st century, which is defined by largely expanded globalization and ever-growing consumerism, cinema is pressured to keep up to date with popular culture and either produce more of what’s desired already, or try to implement its own rules and influence the guidelines of pop culture. Consequently, in the abundance of sources for entertainment nowadays, the element of surprise, that manages to catch the fans unprepared and, ultimately, gets them re-fascinated by the medium, remains one of the big screen’s biggest strengths. By the element of surprise, I mean precisely the skillfully blended hybridization of genres and cultures, such as Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut project.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night represents an account of the life and adventures of a young female vampire who lives in the fictional realm of Bad City, a shadowy place set somewhere in Iran, where her immortality and wisdom allow her to implement justice among the sinful citizens. The nameless vampire, whose penetration in the other characters’ lives brings the needed progression to the general plot and gradually interconnects the fates of all, undoubtedly, stands as the backbone of the story. From Arash, the boy who captures her heart, and his father, Hossein, who’s a heroin-addict and subsequently becomes one of the vampire’s victims, to the town’s prostitute, Atti, and her abusive pimp and a drug-dealer, Saeed, the town appears unsuspicious upon the rising number of deaths and quite oblivious to the numerous acts of injustice, everyone being occupied with their own individual problems but The Girl.

Defined as ”the first Iranian vampire Western”, the film deals with themes such as drug addiction, violence, sexuality and prostitution, street culture and growing up on the street, the contrast between rich and poor, and, last but not least, feminism versus misogyny. Having said that, Amirpour’s black and white cinematographic masterpiece carries a multiplicity of motifs, issues and references that make it impossible to confine it to the category of a specific genre or a sub-genre, thus, calling for a further investigation into the interrelations between its genres.

According to Williams (1984), “as genres change over time, they and their audiences become more and more self-conscious” (p.123), thus progressing from transparency to opacity, from a rather clichéd idea of the genre to a more unpredictable storyline and characters. What’s more, according to Raphaëlle Moine, “the more familiar one is with a genre, the more one is in a position to appreciate its mutation, its evolution, and its diversity” (cited in Todd, 2013, p.96).

Many online reviews of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night try to avoid putting a genre description, but, for example, The Telegraph classifies it as a ‘horror’ film whereas The Irish Times labels it as a ‘film-noir’. In reality, the film is both, and it is also a western, a romance, a woman’s film, and perhaps even, a neo-realist film.

Mark Kermode manages to capture beautifully the complicated nature of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by describing it as an example of a hybrid genre, simultaneously defying time and space, and unifying cultures and film traditions: ”Cinematically, it exists in a twilight zone between nations (American locations, Iranian culture), between centuries (late 19th and early 21st), between languages (Persian dialogue, silent cinema gestures) and, most importantly, between genres.”[1]

What’s grown to be known as a cross-genre, or a hybrid genre, is, in fact, a product “designed to appeal to a range of audiences and capitalize on different markets” (Tasker, p.11). Esfandiary (2012) agrees that “when ‘cosmopolitan’ film-makers produce ‘transnational cinemas’ with universal themes that go beyond local/national prejudices” (p.4), their ideal addressee would be a much more global and diverse audience than that of a single-minded genre.

Thus, if we are to define A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night as a ‘horror’ in its narrative image, then fans would expect to be startled in the cinema and supposing their expectations are not met, they will be disappointed with the film’s narrative and plot twists, despite the film’s undeniable qualities. On the contrary, if the poster is to say ‘western’, they might imagine cowboys on horses and still feel disappointed upon seeing a reality that differs drastically from the image their own fantasy had managed to create in the time frame between seeing the poster and actually watching the film.

When you take a look at at the western, as Williams (1984) notes, ”in one sense all Westerns are about ‘the same’ issues of individual versus community, the taming of the frontier, and so on” (p.123), even if details within the genre are subject to changes, such as the main protagonist being a vampire seeking justice by sucking the blood from the guilty ones, namely, the Girl who walks home alone at night, opposed to the cowboy to be found as the protagonist in classic westerns.

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Opening credits

The choice of font for the opening credits further suggests that the film will be a western or will contain elements of the genre – a rather minor but at the same time significant detail about the film.

Clover (1992) goes so far as to suggest that the two genres of the western and the horror are, in fact, remarkably similar, following his observation that ”each is the other ‘underneath,’ that the terms of the one are inherent, if not manifest, in the terms of the other, and that each enables the other to be told” (p.165). Williamson (2005), having completed the process of the unification between the two genres, writes that the Western vampire is a rather ambiguous figure that portrays the alienated nature of the capitalist societies in the West, thus, representing ”no longer an expression of terror” (p.183), but that of an outcast.

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The Girl and her skateboard

The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night is, of course, more than simply a vampire who seeks blood donors or sexual partners. She is practically neither, even if she does feed on her victims and she does carry a strong sexual presence around her. Amirpour’s vampire character is close to Williamsons’s description of an outcast, but she is more than just an outcasted presence in the shadows. By riding her skateboard on the deserted night streets, the noise by the friction of the wheels with the asphalt notifying the town of her presence, The Girl proves her readiness to participate actively in bringing justice to Bad City where laws and regulations are not enough to stop the crimes from happening.

According to Williams (1984), ”like the female spectator, the female protagonist often fails to look, to return the gaze of the male who desires her”, since back in the classical narrative cinema to ‘see’ was directly translated as to ‘desire’. The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night, however, sees everything: she’s part of the darkness, part of the shadows, part of the night, part of the unknown, part of the mysterious. What’s more, it is her strong gaze that makes other people turn their heads, from kids to old men. ”The bold, smoldering dark eyes of the silent screen vamp offer an obvious example of a powerful female look” (Williams, 1984) and the dance scene from the film offers the perfect example of the female protagonist’s power over her male ‘accomplice’, the pimp, Saeed, just moments before his final verdict.

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The Girl and her fangs

Another important remark is delivered by the careful observations of Williams (1984) that ”there is not that much difference between an object of desire and an object of horror as far as the male look is concerned.” In the fore-mentioned dance scene, it becomes clear that the pimp does not see the girl as a potential threat; on the contrary, he sees her as a sexual object and attempts to conquer her attention, whether by offering her cocaine or dancing for her. When The Girl reveals her true identity of a vampire, she simultaneously changes her status in the room from the prey to the predator. Even when she deliberately shows him her fangs, the male’s initial scare fades away quickly.

The Girl has no other choice but to bring the pimp, with the word ‘sex’ tattooed on his neck (Figure 3), both his tattoo and behavior making a reference to abnormality, to his end. Her main aim being to implement justice to those who have wronged, ”rather than fighting on behalf of all women and of her queer subjects as well as her masochistic male heterosexual ones, she fights on behalf of the law, installing its implacable logic” (Greven, p.178). It is not the abusive episode of Saeed attacking Atti, the prostitute, that she’s avenging, but rather the presence of a problematic figure like the pimp that causes general havoc in society: with his serious sexual inclinations, his drug-dealing, and, thus, spreading the addiction among the common people, such as Hossein, the father of Arash.

According to Greven (2011), ”one of the defining features of the woman’s film is the theme of transformation, which happens on both physical and emotional levels” (p.7). In his opinion, an essential female figure that keeps re-appearing in the horror genre, including in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is ”the phallic, avenging, retributive woman, the Fury who vanquishes male deviance, a figure released in fusions of the woman’s film with other genres, most often film noir but sometimes the western” (p.84).

The Girl seen as as the Fury transcends the genres of western and horror in order to add to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night another genre: the film noir. One might argue that Amirpour’s vampire is actually a femme fatale and one will be right. However, by acknowledging that The Girl is a femme fatale, we are not disproving that she is also a Fury: she fits, in fact, both of the character frames. She uses her mystery and sexual allure to charm the pimp, and then embraces the nature of the Fury in order to carry out her main goal: to do justice. As Greven further says, ”in killing off the monster, she is also killing off a figure whose aberrant sexuality has troubled the narrative” (p.147).

Ultimately, Amirpour’s debut film features a vampire sweetheart whose intuition surely fits the director’s personal needs for expression, but perhaps also society’s needs for consolation that there is hope left in the multiplying shadows of this world. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night jumps from one genre to the other: sometimes making you squirm during scenes fueled by explicit content of sexuality or drug abuse, and sometimes bringing so much visual and auditory pleasure to your senses that you’d find a smile stretching on your face. Whether one watches the film because they’re a fan of horror films or because they like mysteries, or perhaps they are fascinated by the vampire love stories, they will inevitably find both an element of surprise and an evolutionary characteristic within each of the genres embedded in the storyline.

[1] A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/movies/girl-walks-home-alone-night-2
[2] A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night review – exhilarating vampire girl power (2015), Mark Kermode https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/24/a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-review-mark-kermode
Further references:
Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: gender in the modern horror film. Chapter 3, pp.114-139. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Esfandiary, S., & Ebooks Corporation Limited. (2012). Iranian cinema and globalization: National, transnational, and islamic dimensions. Bristol: Intellect.
Greven, D. (2011). Representations of femininity in American genre cinema: The woman’s film, film noir, and modern horror. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Tasker, Y., & Ebooks Corporation Limited. (1998). Working girls: Gender and sexuality in popular cinema. London: Routledge.
Todd, E. (2013). Passionate love and popular cinema: Romance and film genre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, L. (1984). When the woman looks. Essays in Feminist Film Criticism. Edited by Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and Linda Williams (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984). American Film Institute Monograph Series, Volume 3.
Williamson, M. (2005). The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction, and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wallflower Press.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Never heard of this film–but then again, I haven’t been paying attention much thanks to the overblown advertising of CGI-gasm action films (ugh) in the past decade. But man, this is one I’d be wanting to watch big time. That was one thing I liked about having video rental stores (when they were brick and mortar)–they always had a few foreign films for sale and rent. It was the only place I could find any (and I have a ton of ’em on the shelf). Sadly, we never seem to hear about them unless they’ve won an Oscar or nomination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree with you that many films remain in the shadows precisely because they’re not part of the commercial, filled with CGI bunch of titles. Soon I’ll be writing a post with all the best films in 2016 and I’m preparing a couple of foreign titles, or at least some American productions that were largely ignored by the award season! In the meantime, I recommend you to check the films by Andrea Arnold, she’s definitely not afraid to be provocative and very honest in her creations.

      Liked by 1 person

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