Angelica Jade Bastién

The Feminine Grotesque #10: Genre Is a Woman and She Has Fangs – On ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a film best described by the moods it evokes. It shifts from existential unease to cold blooded terror in startling ways. But there is also a deep sense of longing that colors the interactions between characters.

Shot in California but taking place in an Iranian ghost town dubbed “Bad City”, the film pivots around two characters. Arash (Arash Marandi), a young Iranian man who carries himself like a modern down and out James Dean, struggles to make ends meet and care for his heroin addicted father. Then there is a character simply known as The Girl. She’s a chador-clad vampire who preys on men and moves like quicksilver. They cross paths when The Girl kills the cruel drug dealer/pimp, Saeed (Dominic Rains), that took Arash’s car in exchange for the money his father owed.

These characters aren’t so much people but askew archetypes which director Ana Lily Amirpour uses to plumb the murky depths of the human spirit. But she doesn’t give viewers easy answers in the form of clever dialogue or drawn out monologues, instead choosing to use dreamlike imagery and strong musical choices to do the work.

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In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Amirpour said “I watched the making of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video thousands of times. It taught me how to be an American.” This sort of ethos melding Americana, pop culture references and slick sensibility is evident in the film. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could have easily just been another empty exercise in impressive style that has no voice of its own. It mixes a bevy of influences from spaghetti westerns to the Iranian New Wave to David Lynch to 1950s American iconography (just look at how Arash is styled like a modern James Dean and his relationship to his car). But what makes the film rise above this is Amirpour’s personality and perspective as a director. If A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night uses the visual grammar of dreams, it’s her dreams that we’re watching on screen. The mishmash of pop culture references, the intense longing bubbling beneath the surface and the striking cinematography make the film its own animal. And this animal has claws that it isn’t afraid to use.

Vampires are incredibly elastic myths. They can be used to discuss vanity and humanity’s greatest weaknesses (Interview with a Vampire), coming-of-age stories (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the nature of America itself (Near Dark). Here, the vampire is a potent archetype used to discuss the ways women move through the world.

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One of the most powerful scenes comes early on when The Girl tricks Saeed into letting her into his home. He’s a walking testament to a certain kind of toxic masculinity that confuses violence with power. SEX is tattooed across his throat and he hulks around every setting as if he owns the place. Saeed leers at The Girl, thinking she’s another prostitute he can mold, manipulate and take advantage of. She plays along but her face doesn’t give away anything. When The Girl takes Saeed’s finger into her mouth — sucking on it gently — a profound sense of dread is injected into the scene. Where is this going? And just when viewers become lulled into a state of comfort, The Girl bites down hard until Saeed is left with a bloody stump where his finger should be.

The sound design during The Girl’s displays of violence is powerful. She sounds inhuman and animalistic. Her voice deepens, sounding like a chorus of all the wronged women her actions seem to be providing vengeance for. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ultimately discusses the ideas of female monstrousness, misogyny and connection.

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But for all the terror The Girl evokes, there is a romanticism to her. It’s seen in the blissful look on her face as she skateboards down the street; her chador melding into the inky blackness around her like a superhero’s cape or the wings of a gargantuan beast (depending on how you think of her). But The Girl’s human qualities are most apparent when she starts interacting with Arash in earnest. Thus far in the film, her nights have been spent drinking the blood of devilish men or playing records alone in her apartment while her disco ball twinkles overhead. But Arash comes to her on even ground.

“Don’t worry I won’t hurt you,” he says when they meet under the street lights cutting through the dark of the city. Arash doesn’t realize that it’s he who should be worried. Back at The Girl’s place, they tentatively interact with each other and a romance of sorts forms.

Where the film leaves these two yearning and wounded characters isn’t a neat happily-ever-after. But it does speak to the promise of better days and that even the most monstrous, subversive and against-the-grain women can find someone who can see them clearly and love them.

Arash Marandi and Sheila Vand in Ana Lily Amirpour’s ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (2014)

After viewing A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night for the first time, I wondered “doesn’t a woman have to be at least a little bit monstrous to survive?” What price does she pay for embodying the transgressive, the monstrous and the grotesque?

Many of the films in the Genre Is A Woman festival (playing at Film Forum) touch on these questions. The films are all radically different. But they are an important argument as to how the female gaze powerfully subverts our expectations when it comes to how violence, body horror, noir and science fiction are portrayed. Looking at the directors featured, you’ll find one thing in common besides gender: how few films they’ve made. It’s depressing to look at the career of a director like Mary Harron, whose adaptation of American Psycho, which I wrote about for Village Voice, is one of the most incredible, scathing and important satires in modern film history. Yet it took her five years to make The Notorious Bettie Page and another six for The Moth Diaries.

This isn’t a rarity. It’s common place. You can pretty much pick any female director, past or present, and notice how long it takes them to get their next film made. Too many times, and for a variety of reasons (mostly the sexist industry that refuses to acknowledge female talent), great female directors aren’t even given second chances. And when a film of theirs falters? Well, just look what happened to Elaine May. Amirpour has already shot her next film, The Bad Batch, although a release date hasn’t been mentioned. It’s an English-language film that continues her desire to meld genres starring the likes of Jason Momoa, Diego Luna and my personal favorite, Keanu Reeves. Too many careers of female directors I love have fizzled out or been unable to grow. I’m hoping Amirpour doesn’t get added to that list.

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Which is why The Feminine Grotesque will be turning its gaze to the madwomen behind the camera for the next month or so. This was inspired by a reader who requested that I write about “female filmmakers throughout history who got screwed.”

When I started The Feminine Grotesque last fall, it was for very personal purposes. Primarily, it was a way to work out demons I had no other outlet for as my life unraveled. I’ve found it difficult recently to write this column. It is the series closest to my heart that puts many of my deepest obsessions in the spotlight. I’ve felt like I’m not talented or creative enough to live up to the immense ambition that powers this column. Then I happened upon an article that infuriated me to such a degree that it reminded me why I write this in the first place. With “Finally, TV Gets A Few Difficult Women”, Alison Herman of The Ringer gets a lot wrong — to the point where I wondered if she had ever watched shows like The Americans and Damages. She says, “Compelling as some of these characters are, however, they often feel like the gender equivalent of colorblind casting, well-meaning but unspecific. They’re variations on the same prototype, with a box checked F instead of M.” This is a reading that doesn’t make sense even if you’ve only watched a few episodes of these shows.

But here is where my anger boiled:

“If the male antihero showed us the fundamental lie of masculinity, then the female sociopath shows us the hidden power, and potential threat, of femininity.”

Excuse me? As someone with mental illness, it infuriates me how mental health terms are misused in order to further shaky arguments. Just because a character is difficult, cold and distant — and refrains from wearing their emotions readily — doesn’t make them a “sociopath.” One of the chief concerns about The Feminine Grotesque is how mental illness is discussed and treated in American culture.

Reading that article and watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night reminded me why I started this column in the first place. With the next phase of this column, I hope to live up to the incisive works like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and my own ambition, despite what the demons I try to keep at bay continue to say.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is playing Monday, June 13th at 2pm for the Film Forum Genre Is A Woman Festival.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.

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