not in our stars, but in ourselves
33/52: A movie directed by a woman
The very title carries with it a particular dread, a particular beginning to a story everyone knows: a girl walks home alone at night, and some horrible fate befalls her. Rape, murder, torture, some combination of the three – the perils of being a woman in a hostile patriarchy. Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour posits this scenario: what if the girl is self-assured, unintimidated, unimpressed – and a supernatural being, to boot? A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a vampire movie, but it’s not hard to see the real-world, feminist applications of its titular character and her nocturnal autonomy.
In Bad City, located somewhere in Iran, vice and destruction reign supreme. There are some good people, but they’re all compromised by the decay around them. Machines drill (what’s left of) the earth incessantly; dead bodies pile up in a pit; prostitutes wander sadly and powerlessly; drug addicts languish for days in their shoddy houses. Arash (Arash Marandi) is a young man who lives with his heroin-addicted father (Marshall Menesh). When he’s not rescuing stray cats (Masuka, making an impressive feline acting debut), he’s working as a landscaper for a rich family. He tells a child beggar that he had to work for six years, saving up to buy his prized Thunderbird; and, in addition to his ’50s automobile, he affects a James Dean style, wearing tight white t-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets. He’s not the too-cool-for-school Dean of cultural memory, however: he’s a sensitive, perceptive guy who tries to keep his head above the water in a city that seems to be drowning in vice. His father owes Saeed (Dominic Rains) money – for drugs and for prostitutes – so Saeed takes Arash’s car. While Saeed is forcing Atti (Mozhan Marnò) to fellate him in the back seat of the car, he notices a woman cloaked in black. He loses his focus, throws Atti out of the car without paying her, and drives away. Later, when he walks through the abandoned city streets at night, he notices the same cloaked woman (Sheila Vand). He assumes she’s a prostitute, and orders her to follow him home. She does. He peacocks around his apartment, doing coke and showing off – and then, The Girl bites off his finger and drains him of his blood. As it happens, Arash is just stopping by, in order to get back his car, and he realizes that the wicked witch is dead, so to speak. He takes back his keys, a briefcase full of drugs, and a hell of a lot of cash. After a costume party – where he’s dressed as Dracula – he wanders the streets. He’s lost, and high, and not as unnerved as most men by the strange cloaked woman who skateboards down the street towards him. They fall in something like love at first sight, despite her protestations that he doesn’t know who she is, and that she’s done bad things. He asks her if a storm came over that mountain right now, would it matter? What matters: what you’ve done, or who you want to be? (Both, probably, but hush.)
Like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, this movie finds a significant amount of emotional depth in the inherent Romanticism and isolation of vampirism. The connection between the teenage alienation of James Dean and the eternal Otherness of the vampire is one of the things that bring Arash and The Girl together. Both look at the world, see it run into the ground by the so-called grown-ups, and react either with disgust (Arash) or vengeance (The Girl). The Girl is a sort of moral force of nature: she sees bad men doing bad things, and she takes their lives. She even puts the fear of god in the little beggar boy whom Arash told about his car – telling him that she’d be watching him for the rest of his life, to make sure he continued to be a good boy, on pain of losing his eyeballs. She never punishes or threatens the women: Atti isn’t exactly a pinnacle of virtue, but she is a victim, and The Girl understands this quite clearly. This is a man’s world, and it’s awful. The only recipients of her brutal form of justice will be the men.
In Saeed’s apartment, we see what men like him consider women to be. His walls are decorated with the severed heads (I believe sport-hunters call them “busts”) of various prey. Gazelles, deer, things like that. Their wide, Audrey Hepburn eyes are permanently frozen open, staring out in disbelief at their ignominious death and dull afterlife. Atti isn’t dissimilar. Before The Girl intervened in her case, Atti probably would have been a wide-eyed body rolled into the pit of despair somewhere near the power-drivers working round the clock. The trick to avoiding that fate, as The Girl displays, is to let them think you’re a gazelle – when you are, in fact, a far more wily predator than they know. Intimidate men. Insult them. If they seem like they want to take something that you haven’t offered, attack. (When The Girl bites off Saeed’s finger, it’s clearly intended as emasculation. Earlier, Atti sucked on his finger before she sucked on his – well, you know. Chomp, chomp.) In any event, the message is clear: bad men in Bad City will die in the kind of sexualized panic that they inflict on women.
I imagine that a certain type of man watching this, if he bothered to watch this (I mean, it’s not about white superhero bros, so I don’t think the odds are good that he’d stumble upon it), would get all up in arms that the movie is blatantly anti-male. This is untrue, of course. It’s anti-patriarchal, because – as we learned from Mad Max: Fury Road – toxic masculinity poisons us all. Those who participate unquestioningly and unapologetically in the power afforded to them by that patriarchy – they will suffer. Those who despise the wretched state of the world brought about by that toxic masculinity; those who observe and listen; those who express their desire and interest, but wait for the object of their affection to make her consent clear; they will survive. They’ll be just fine.
All this revolutionary feminism (I am scoffing as I write that, you realize; the idea that it’s revolutionary for men to respect women as human beings is why I drink as much as I do) aside, the film as a film is gorgeous. Shot in gleaming black and white, with occasional dutch angles that call to mind The Third Man, and gorgeous nighttime cinematography lit up by harsh streetlights, it’s a film that emphasizes the importance of other senses when sight is diminished. There’s a lot to see – I don’t mean to imply otherwise – but there’s also a lot to hear, to smell, to touch, to taste. The music in the film is terrific. I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write, and having a grand old time. There are also the sounds of heartbeats, teeth tearing through flesh and tendon, harsh skateboard wheels over disintegrating pavement. There’s the tight, airless stench of a house where the windows are never opened. There’s the tantalizing space in between two bodies, when each wants the other but doesn’t dare move any closer. There’s the bitterness of pills, the metallic tang of blood, the bloody fat deliciousness of a hamburger. I noticed this with Only Lovers Left Alive as well, and maybe it’s a quality of all great vampire movies (or maybe these are the only two): they engage all the senses, bringing your entire body into the experience of watching and hearing an audiovisual experience.
In short: see this movie. Support your local Iranian-American female filmmaker. Be nice to girls, lest they suck you dry. Be nice to everyone. Rescue stray cats. Get out of Bad City/the patriarchy. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, but do feel free to give up some of the loneliness surrounding it if you find someone kind and gentle and wild about you.