Sunday 24 May 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Prowl Play

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
2014  USA
Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
UK cinema release print.

I’ve been desperately waiting for this movie to come out over here in England for a while now, after it got such good word of mouth on the festival circuit. It’s been dubbed as the first Iranian vampire movie and, while I think the director might be Iranian and it’s certainly set in Iran... it was filmed in California. So I think that claim might need to be taken with a pinch of salt, depending on what your criteria are for the funding or location of a film and how much a part that plays in its nationality. It’s also been called a “vampire Western” but... no.

Not even close.

What it is, in fact, is a very good independent vampire movie which gets a lot of things right, eschewing the general over-explanatory route of story telling, often found in a lot of modern Hollywood and English movies and, instead, bringing a real sense of emotion and heart to the piece. I could go directly to the cliché of saying it’s quite a quirky film but, when you get what is essentially a black and white foreign movie of any type these days, then quirky probably covers a myriad of terminological sins that I’d rather avoid but... I suspect you’ll get that word applied a lot to it in reviews of this one, as a general catch all.

When I had to go into Central London to see this film because the local multiplexes wouldn’t pick it up, I was appalled that I was charged £14 for a cinema ticket now in this country’s ‘bright capital’... after all, I will probably be able to pick up a Blu Ray of the film for far less after a month or so of its release... but at least I can say that, in the case of this particular cinematic experience, the money was well spent.

The film is shot in a very crisp greyscale and tells the story of Arash, played by Arash Marandi, who lives with his junkie of a father and has to live with the fact that his dad owes the local and thuggishly villainous pimp lots of money, in a place referred to only as Bad City. But then there’s the title character too... the girl who walks home alone at night... played by the quite delightful Sheila Vand (with the director herself standing in for her in long shots on a skateboard). This lady who has no name is, in fact, a vampire and, though a lot of the scenes take place at night, where she wanders around and somehow manages to stay on the periphery of everybody’s consciousness, she doesn’t necessarily follow all the normal vampire rules that movies have laid down as law over the years. She’s not allergic to sunlight, she casts a reflection in mirrors and she has no fear of running water, for example. But she does have a great set of retractable fangs which can do a lot of damage, drinks blood and has a beautiful and commanding screen presence, even though she’s waif-like and seems to be a remote and lonely soul at heart. In terms of her visual look she definitely, due to her hair style and the striped top she has a penchant for wearing, reminded me a lot of Elina Löwensohn’s character in Hal Hartley’s Simple Men and one wonders if the director is a fan of Mr. Hartley’s excellent work.

The first thing that struck me about the film, and which continued to entrance me as I watched, was the director’s fixation of manipulating large visual blocks within a frame, often split up with a vertical line. She will find a way of splitting the frame up into, say, two sections, taking up either half the frame each or a two thirds to one third mix of space, and then have all the action of the shot predominantly taking place in one of those areas... whether there is a definite visual, vertical indicator or not. There are actually, when you start watching out for it, very few sequences (there are a couple, I think) where this visual modus operandi has not been employed, even when the camera is tracking somebody who is, for example, turning the corner of a street... the camera will more often than not follow with them so they are framed within roughly the same spot in the moving shot. Which is very good practice, actually, because it allows the director to do the thing which was good and common practice within movie making when widescreen formats were first popularly used back in the 1950s, which is to ensure the eye is not jumping from one place to another when the shot cuts to a reverse shot of the same scene or makes a transition to another. In fact, there is quite a beautiful transition from two totally different scenes which relies on the use of a splitting, vertical plane within the first few minutes of the movie. It makes good sense when using a 2.35:1 or similar aspect ratio, as this film does, to employ this kind of very controlled frame design within your scenes because it means you are less likely to pop your audience out of the action or give them an unintentional, visual jolt when you cut from moment to moment. And the flip side of that, of course, is that if you do want to give the audience a bit of a shock or a challenging sting, then you can just use the familiarity of the visual style as something to suddenly drop for a moment and get the desired kick out of it. It seems to be one of the arts of composing shots for a widescreen set up that seems to have either gone out of fashion or has been forgotten in recent years so... I’m glad that someone is still making use of this extremely controlled and ultimately beautiful technique of making films.

The other standout thing about this film is the writing of ‘the girl’ and the way that Sheila Vand plays her. I said she was waif-like and she also seems lonely and vulnerable at times... I imagine that she wanders the streets at night on the prowl with food being only partially her reason for doing this... I think she just wants to interact with people because she has almost forgotten what it’s like to have somebody else there for her. As such, the film develops with an implied, developing romance between her and Arash, even though she has done something terrible to Arash without either of them at first realising it... and also something near the start of the movie which has helped Arash turn his life around a little... so it’s interesting. There’s a really fantastic scene where Arash gives her some earrings and she doesn’t have pierced ears... so she gets Arash to pierce them on the spot for her and that... but I don’t want to give away the whole of a scene, which is a charming turning point for the title character. Enough to say that ‘the girl’ is truly adorable.

It would be easy to say that she is an avenging crusader, in that you get the feeling she is protecting people from bad antagonists at times, even with the fall out from the last person she kills on screen, because she does seem to relish inflicting her special brand of justice and, of course, she needs to eat. There’s a brilliant scene where she scares a little boy half to death on purpose, presumably to bring him in line and ensure he grows up to be a good person, but there’s also the fact that she seems to enjoy it a little and she is truly fearsome when she needs to be. I think one of the things I like about this film, though, is its deliberate refusal to paint everything in black and white tones worthy of the film’s greyscale palette... the director makes no real judgement on the people who inhabit the screen and, though they are very much ‘broad stroke’ characters, there is a certain complexity to all their emotional or psychological make up which leaves you, as an audience, in the position of working out if any given character is ultimately a good person or a bad person... and whether their past actions are something they need to be answerable for now. As the title character says to Arash at one point... “I’ve done bad things.”

This is a philosophy which I almost always applaud a writer or director for and, in the case of Ana Lily Amirpour, she’s both. And it helps that the title character is not without humour either... the way she stalks some people using stereotypical ninja stealth skills that go hand in hand with the legacy of vampirism in cinema is present but there’s also a magical scene where, a little way in, you realise she’s doing her own version of the famous Groucho/Harpo mirror sketch in Duck Soup... and that definitely got a little chuckle from me. And, again, I applaud the writer/director for a magical little scene which will live on in my memory through the years.

Ultimately, I have to say that A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It’s wonderfully shot and lit, beautifully written, more than competently acted (and I’m totally in love with the central character), well designed and, concerning what I said about the composition of the majority of the shots in the movie, easy on the eye when it comes down to the editing. A truly charming film which will stay with me for a long while after the memories of other movies released in cinemas this year will have dimmed and turned to dust. A great success for Ana Lily Amirpour, who has instantly marked herself out as someone to definitely keep an eye on. Do yourself a favour and try and catch this one before the screen space gets devoured by the onslaught of dinosaur and time travelling robot movies in the not so distant future. One of the best films of the year.

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