April 18, 2015
Weak dialogue, overlong pointless shots and wilfully unintelligible allusions are the main failures of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Nevertheless, when it avoids such idiosyncrasies, the beautiful images and soundtrack aptly set the stage for a simple, yet challenging story, which has not been appreciated in most reviews. Besides this aesthetic achievement, it also forges some novel concepts that will probably be reused in the future.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is, in various ways, an annoying movie. Not as much as its promotion (“first Iranian vampire Western ever made”), led by director Ana Lily Amirpour—or rather her media persona—who impersonates the age of social-media-driven image cultivation (including obligatory inane tweets) to the edge of vulgarity, but annoying nonetheless.
Having watched the movie with a native speaker of Farsi, and reading similar comments, it appears that the characters have a strong accent and an unnatural, forced way of talking, which might explain the aridity of the dialogue. I am aware that this might have been intentional—maybe even a self-ironical take on the emigrated Iranian community’s quest for authenticity. Even so, it fails, merely resulting in irritation for native speakers and being completely lost on the non-Farsi-speaking audience, for which the movie was really made.
Besides this, A Girl Walks Home Alone becomes silly when it tries to outsmart its viewers, which happens on numerous occasions. The TV spots during the first half hour, the pictures of an ominous leader or Farsi graffiti on the walls hint at a message, a concept, which the movie is too pretentious (or too lazy) to reveal to the target audience. This might well be part of intentionally deriding an overly intellectual audience, but it falls flat by leading nowhere. Being more brilliant than the audience is a safe, but cheap trick. Engaging with it—if possible in a meaningful way—is much more difficult; it should nonetheless be the goal of any artistic endeavour.
The length of certain scenes is another issue. A movie cannot, even in principle, capture the chronology of human interactions realistically. Instead, time has to be compressed, the pace of the action increased, while preserving some illusion of realism. Amirpour opts for very little compression, very long scenes, but without trading the tediousness for even a little realism. The last scene, for instance, is pointlessly slow and could well be cut down to half its length.
However, these inadequacies do not make A Girl Walks Home Alone a worthless movie. Quite the contrary: they point to a sincere artistic ambition. And luckily, directors need not be particularly thoughtful or likeable in their self-display to create valuable movies. I will start by identifying aspects where Amirpour did actually succeed artistically, and then try to point out how the movie can be useful beyond the aesthetic context.
The image composition, lighting and texture are very good, not only through their graphic beauty, but because they are successful in conveying a detached, neutral mood (aided by the very aptly devised soundtrack), curiously contrasting with the disgust that they should elicit. I am not certain that Amirpour’s intention was to convey this atmosphere, but in any case it is convincing and immersive.
In some cases, when the irony successfully surfaces, the movie becomes genuinely funny. The pimp, for instance, is a deliciously grotesque conglomerate of stereotypes about movie villains, updated to reflect contemporary fashion trends (in particular the obsession with tattoos).
The story has been much criticised for being trivial or even non-existent, when it is really the movie’s most valuable element. One should first note that it succeeds in not being a trite “feminist” story about an emancipated vampiress avenging oppressed Iranian women—it is not at all obvious that the girl specifically targets (misogynous) men, or even that she has any desire for vengeance.
More importantly, the girl’s character is, at best, morally neutral, at worst, plainly base. A Girl Walks Home Alone does not show two lovers struggling against a desolate, rotten town but rather two rotten lovers, participating in the constitution of a desolate, rotten town. Arash starts off as a fairly likeable James-Dean-wannabe and ends up as a drug dealer who sends his addicted father out on the street. The girl, who appears and kills almost exclusively in connection with drugs (one might want to think of her as the drug’s personification) seems to surreptitiously pervert Arash, who eventually gives up his father for his own comfort.
Nonetheless, Arash and the girl are the only characters who display some sort of affection for something besides money or drugs. The viewer is henceforth drawn into a dilemma. Should she identify herself with them, while accepting their moral ambiguity or rather resist this longing (which, given the beauty of the shots and the well conveyed innocence of both characters, turns out to be very difficult), choosing to condemn the inhabitants of “Bad city” without exception?
In addition to the intrinsic, aesthetic value, the movie is also “instrumentally valuable”, because it forges concepts, which can be used in everyday language, philosophy and even science.
A Girl Walks Home Alone forms many such concepts: first and foremost, the skateboarding adolescent hipster vampire, both fragile and godlike, which can and will be referenced in the future. It captures and transforms the contemporary iconic imagery to create a new, original and momentous symbol. While this is not in itself an aesthetic achievement, it could still prove to be a convenient unit for other works to build upon. To a lesser extent, this is also the case for Arash and the pimp.
The movie might also participate in remodeling the perception of Iranian culture in the “Western” world and in particular in the United States. While very obviously not authentically depicting Iran (besides just as obviously not having been shot there), it does convey the culture and references of the Iranian diaspora in the US, including the importance given to speaking Farsi. I have already contended that using Farsi is an aesthetic mistake, leading to unnatural dialogue and a confused message; on the other hand, the awkwardness might prove helpful in understanding the tensions that the emigrated Persian community faces.