Thursday 21 May 2015

Veiled threat: "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

For a film that arrives from the festival circuit trailed as "the Iranian feminist vampire movie", A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night initially appears reluctant to portray so much as a woman, let alone an undead bloodsucker. Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour starts out by establishing the parameters of a small town that is also very much a man's world, lorded over by a brutal, tattooed pimp and drug dealer (Dominic Rains). By way of a hero, we're offered the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), obliged to turn to this brute in order to score hits for his jonesing addict father. This is the system, and one might note a weary, compromised dependency in the way even the noble and honourable Arash - a man who spends his downtime rescuing stray pussycats - buys into it. Then The Girl (Sheila Vand) appears in the back of Amirpour's widescreen - glimpsed in a rear-view mirror as the pimp abuses one of his girls, her chador framing her as well as those capes once did Christopher Lee. The next night, back at the pimp's place, she will forcibly remove the finger he habitually obliges his conquests to suck on, a prelude to ripping out his throat. At last, some resistance.

In her debut feature, Amirpour is very savvy about the imagery she reaches for; as Marjane Satrapi did in Persepolis, she opens up this self-contained universe to far wider scrutiny than it might otherwise have received. Though its inhabitants speak subtitled Farsi, Amirpour's fictional Bad City - a composite construction along the lines of Frank Miller's Sin City - isn't the dusty, academic, grounded environment of a Makhmalbaf or Kiarostami film, doubtless as it was actually recreated in an abandoned oil town in the California desert. The film talks East, but looks West: here are roiling derricks, flat suburban houses, kids on skateboards, hamburgers, train tracks for outlaw lovers to meet on the wrong side of. Amirpour may possibly have been drawn to the US of the 1950s as an analogue for the Iran of today: a place where sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are still taboo enough to seem fresh, exciting, dangerous, where simply to take someone you fancy behind a closed bedroom door to listen to music might have you branded as a rebel or troublemaker.

Having set out the physical geography of this universe, the film moves through it in mysterious, unpredictable ways: its non-conformism runs deep. Maybe it's a sign of my own ingrained, lazy prejudices, but I was expecting more of a romance to develop between the mortal Arash and the Girl; instead, Amirpour displays the same reluctance as her heroine to succumb to Twilighty melodrama. This may be deliberate. Since, in the wake of the pimp's demise, Arash has maintained the dope-slinging business (and even co-opted the pimp's convertible) out of familial duty, we might wonder whether Amirpour intends to confer upon him the standing of a tyrant-in-waiting: less hardline than his predecessor, granted, but a man like any other. (His use of a needle to pierce the Girl's ear - an image that provides a brilliant rhyme with his father's self-medication - only underlines this possibility: here's another prick, asserting control, messing everything up.) Yet the final image is more optimistic, settling upon its own form of equality - between boy, girl and cat - even as it wonders where they (and we) go from here.

En route, there's a lot of that studied languor by which certain Nineties indies (on a vampiric tip, think Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, or Michael Almereyda's Nadja) channelled the radical inertia of Jim Jarmusch's early work, yet Amirpour always finds something to fill the space: a song or a sound (here be the sizzliest cigarettes you'll hear smoked on a screen in 2015), an idea or an image, occasionally a short, sharp shock. Above all else, there hangs a very specifically nocturnal atmosphere: woozy and disconcerting, under the spell of which everything appears either too quiet or too loud, the colours are muted (Lyle Vincent's monochrome photography is a major plus), and it's enough to hear a single footstep on an otherwise empty street for a chill to descend along the spine. The effect is certainly striking, and guaranteed to be seized upon by anyone who ever displayed a fondness for drinking snakebite-and-black in the student union bar, although cinemagoers planning on taking in a matinee should tread carefully: step out from it into direct Bank Holiday sunshine, and you'll more than likely burn up on the spot.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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