Bad City Nocturne: Ana Lily Amirpours A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
In a desolate, industrial town known only as “Bad City,” a young man, Arash, is hijacking a chubby cat from a vacant lot. He passes a few strange, iconic characters who will reappear later in the film—a young boy begging for money, and a male cross-dresser—and significant locations, like a bridge over a dry ravine, full of dead bodies. A whimsical, eerie gypsy tango plays as Arash walks through deserted dirt roads with the cat in his arms.
This opening song—and the entire soundtrack, an eclectic mix of English post-punk and indie rock, Iranian rock, and gypsy jazz—is choreographed perfectly to the camera's and characters's movements within the scene. As with her soundtrack, director Ana Lily Amirpour makes her film an assemblage of allusions to cinematic genres and styles—from Italian neorealism to spaghetti western to the Lynchian surreal, and, most prominently, the vampire love story. But for all the hybrid-genres she incorporates, Amirpour maintains a consistent vision, and it's a distinctly feminist one. The Girl, the lonely vampire who wanders through the film, always on the cusp of finding love, is at once a feminist and a misanthrope, a killer of men who threaten and abuse women.
When we see the Girl for the first time, she is a ghostly figure in the rearview mirror of Saeed, a pimp and drug dealer, who is in the middle of receiving a blow job from the prostitute, Atti. Inside the car, he berates her condescendingly: (“Thirty is old,” he tells her), but he is soon frightened by the Girl’s presence and drives off. This is one of many instances when the Girl has followed Atti and is protective and watchful of her. Their relationship is one of the film's two “love stories”: The first, a romantic relationship with Arash, develops slowly; the other, constant and unconditional, is a unique relationship of support reserved for Atti. In a scene toward the end of the film, The Girl comes to the rescue of Atti, arriving as a super hero would, swiftly killing the man who has drugged her. A woman saving a woman in this physically dramatic way is an unusual and powerful image. Later the Girl says to her: “You don’t like what you do. You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want.” These words echo beyond those words being spoken to Atti.
The Girl says very little throughout the film. Hers is a mime-like persona, her exaggerated facial expressions, particularly of the eyes, her striped shirt, and her position as an outcast in society, suggesting a distinct resemblance to Fellini’s Gelsomina from La Strada. Dressed in a full chador on the street, she is unassuming at first to those she bumps into. But very soon all of these characters come to fear her—all except Arash.
On the night they meet, Arash happens to be dressed up as Dracula. He has just left a costume party, has taken ecstasy, and is staring absently at a street lamp when the Girl approaches. She stares hypnotically at him in a way that would frighten anyone else in the movie. But Arash doesn’t get it. He proceeds to make disjointed, awkward comments that appear to surprise or disturb her: “Why are you here? Both of us are here. [...] Give me your hand. [...] You’re so cold.” Suddenly, he embraces her. To see her held in this way is both jarring and exhilarating: when Arash embraces her, we see her in an entirely new way, a way that no one else in the film sees her. By misunderstanding the fact that she is a vampire, he becomes the only one to understand that she can be loved.
When the Girl invites Arash back to her home, she puts on a record:
I love the quiet of the night time,
when the sun is drowned in the deathly sea…
as people drift into a dream world…
I picture my own grave,
because fear’s got a hold on me.
Yes, this fear’s got a hold on me.
Once again, the characters become deeply intertwined with music, both through Amirpour's soundtrack and in the way they orchestrate their audio surroundings within the film. Here, the song, “Death” by the White Lies, takes over the entire room as soon as it begins—it is no longer simply a song being played within the diegetic space of the movie, but develops almost a voice of its own: the overpowering volume, and the elongated, slow movements choreographed for the entirety of the song, strengthen the sensation that this song has been elevated out of the characters’ control, and now exists for our understanding of them. As the Girl stands over the record player, Arash approaches her from behind. They stay here until she turns around, and then they face each other. In the next moment, one senses that either they will kiss or she will kill him. Instead, she pushes his head back with her hand. He faces the flickering lights of the disco ball; she stares hypnotically at his neck. She lowers her head to his chest, and they remain this way, her ear pressed against his chest as he faces upward—drugged-out, in awe, mystified—for the remainder of the scene, the sound of his beating heart shadows the beat of the song as it crescendos.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to distill time in order to extract unforeseen meaning, in a sort of dreamscape that exists beyond plot or narrative. Equal in length, the scene that immediately follows is the film’s most arresting and pivotal. The cross-dresser, a man who wears lipstick, eye makeup, with jeans, a cowboy shirt, and a headscarf, performs a meditative, balletic dance with a single balloon. The expression on his face is pained, determined. Having no bearing on plot or linear sequence, this scene could be extracted and the film would still “make sense.” But in fear and in love there is no sense. This scene mirrors the complexity of these emotions—allowing us to feel deeply for something (or someone) that is displaced, out of sequence with one’s life, time, or order. And while the film mostly follows a linear narrative, there is nonetheless something cyclical about its movements, the way the characters—including the cat—return to us, reminding or provoking us to consider their significance, haunting us with their presence.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on April 21 from Kino Lorber.
LAUREN WALLACH's writing has appeared in Electric Literature, Joyland, Requited, and The Collagist. She lives in Brooklyn.
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