Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

In Iran, it is almost impossible to make movies. Any film that shows the slightest hint of skin, a script that includes a cuss word, any reference to cigarettes and alcohol (both of which are banned in Iran), and the filmmaker is barred from making movies. Jafar Panahi is presently serving a five-year jail sentence because the government decided his chosen themes were “too bold”. Even listening to and creating rock music is unlawful in the country because it’s considered a corrupting, Western influence. Bahman Ghobadi made a statement against the same with his No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film about the underground Iranian music scene. With so much pressure to stick to themes that are acceptable to release in theaters, Iranian cinema has struggled to go beyond the domestic drama genre. 

Presenting A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a film in which director Ana Lily Amirpour displays a particular finger to every rule and constraint of ‘acceptable cinema’. A Girl... was not made in Iran (it was shot in California), but is set in Iran and is about Iranian social stigmas woven around a love story. It’s part noir, part horror, part drama, part romance, part expressionist art, part comedy, part thriller, part western, part social commentary. It’s all those things rolled into one smooth, seriously gorgeous, black and white package and it’s sinfully entertaining.

It's also unlike any other vampire movie you’ve seen because it just doesn’t follow any of the rules of the genre. The plot is simple and not much more than the title of the film. We’re plunged into a nondescript Iranian town called Bad City where a young vampire in a chador, known simply as The Girl, walks on nearly-deserted streets. She’s on the lookout for dinner, but she also loves trolling people and scaring young children. Drugs, sex and nudity -- there’s enough of all this in A Girl... to ban Amirpour from ever reentering her home country. Those elements are present in the film with an obvious air of contempt towards the lack of filmmaking freedom in Iran. But although the R-rated stuff is deliberate, it’s also cleverly woven into the plot, giving the protagonist a reason to feast on a few people. The Girl meets Arash, the guy, for the first time when he’s piss drunk, staring at a streetlight in the middle of the night while wearing a Count Dracula costume. 

It isn’t romance like the horse guano of Twilight. In A Girl…, it’s almost dialogue-less and pretty hilarious. The exchange between Arash and The Girl is electric, established by intense slow mo scenes and electronic music. The two don’t talk. Amirpour lets the visuals and the music do the character development. They fall for each other and resolve conflicts without uttering a single word. Amirpour manages to transfer all that information to the audience without a single line of text. Everything from the production design to the cinematography is terrific – you can practically smell the noir in the film. One scene at a discotheque, in which the guy consumes a narcotic and experiences an elevated state of consciousness, is particularly eye popping. Amirpour is a fan of comics and it’s not surprising that she turned her storyboards for some of the The Girl’s backstory into a graphic novel. A lot of the scenes in A Girl... play out like a graphic novel, particularly because of the starkness of the black and white. The horror isn’t omnipresent, but a couple of scenes are pretty darn creepy. Good luck keeping your heart rate low whenever The Girl quietly shows up on the street and begins following someone. 

Amirpour presents Arash (Arash Marandi) as a James Dean-esque figure with oiled hair, tight T-shirts and a convertible muscle car. The Girl (Sheila Vand) is a rollerblading punk rockstar hidden beneath the chador, waiting to burst open. The soundtrack, storytelling, atmosphere and artistic grimness of the film’s mood make A Girl... reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s off-kilter vampire drama, Only Lovers Left Alive. A Girl... pretty much tears apart the clich├ęs of female vampires depicted in movies and TV shows. Here, the vampire legend is used to explore the protagonist’s feminist angle rather than cheap gore. Amirpour turns The Girl into a vigilante of sorts – she preys only on scum and uses her chador like a superhero cape. She will suck the life out of a wife beater and threatens kids with a similar fate if they don’t behave properly and be good boys. This is the sort of movie that serious horror nuts wait for and then feast upon with glee.

(First published in Firstpost)

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