A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may be my film of the year (it’s a close contest with Locke). But it’s not enough to say it’s superior to bogus conflations like Interstellar and Gone Girl, or the contrived, studious do-goodism of Masterpiece Theatre pictures such as A Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Those comparisons only flatter the mainstream pictures, and dull the dirty radiance of this first feature film, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. It’s not even that she has tossed off a casual masterpiece fit to live beside the best work of her evident forebear, David Lynch. No, A Girl is to be judged on a higher plane still, one that includes the visions of Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, and Luis Buñuel. This is a dream on your screen, absurd, languid (if not slow), and possessed by the calm of an inevitable beauty. This is what cinema was invented for, a rapture in the school of the surreal, indifferent to the time-wasting fallacy that movies have, or should have, anything to do with realism.
The film is being offered as an Iranian vampire movie, and that’s a fair try if you accept that publicity needs to find a sentence to convey a universe in which people feel overshadowed by a life-sentence. As a description, its shortcomings are all fruitful in that they lead you straight into the heart of the picture. So this film is made by a woman of Iranian descent, even if she was born in England, and has lived a lot in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. But it’s a story told in Farsi (with English subtitles), and I would bet that that Farsi is at least elegant and at best poetic because I don’t think this director messes around. As to where the picture is set, I was watching it with my wife and after a while she said, “Isn’t it fascinating that Iran looks so like southern California?”
That is fascinating, and ominous, and I suspect there is an unstoppable aspiration in many “emerging” parts of the world to resemble the desolate industrialization and irrigation of a former desert. In fact, A Girl was shot in and around Taft, near Bakersfield. It is a land- and skyscape of flat infinity, cloud-ridden skies, oil derricks, the hammerheads of drills, pits for detritus, and bursts of smoke and flame where gas and poison scream in the air. That all sounds like color, but A Girl is resplendent in wide-screen black and white, sometimes with tender, shaky camera movements, and so embraces the poetry of dream that you have to marvel at the timidity of the film industry and that such a dead habit has been made of color. Black-and-white was one of our greatest creations; it is the natural child of film; and it reminds us year by year that nothing has more magic—just think of Psycho, Raging Bull, Nebraska, Ida. Here is one more film (photographed by Lyle Vincent) that understands the insanity and creative self-denial of color.
There is even a story to this dream. A Girl is set in Bad City where a young man (Arash Marandi), a Persian James Dean or Gérard Philipe, lives with a drug-addict father. A lurid dealer (Dominic Rains) takes the kid’s beautiful ’57 Thunderbird because of the father’s debts. But the dealer’s rule is ebbing. For soon he will encounter a girl on the street after dark. She has a black cloak which makes a chador beneath which she wears a striped sailor T-shirt. As played by Sheila Vand (the maid at the Canadian embassy in Argo), she is a vampire, and the spirit of all the movies’ lonely women from Garbo and Louise Brooks onwards, a femme fatale waiting for love or death. Her look can shift from saint to demon in a glance. Though she seems an angel in the right light, she is a true, fast killer who might have sunk her fangs in this man’s gorgeous throat, but something happens. She can’t tell him her name, so instead he asks what was the last song she heard. “Hello” by Lionel Richie, she replies, and she’s his. What seemed to be a camp horror movie is turning into the most cool and valuably sick love story you could ask for.
As fits the shapes of Bad City, A Girl has an obsessive stress on horizontals. So the camera tracks and pans, and a lot of the action is on the lateral axis. There is a love scene in which, in close-up, the head of the boy enters an empty frame save for the averted head of the girl; he comes up behind her; she turns to face him. That’s all, but it is one of the most ecstatic scenes in film history—and just one of the glories of this film. There is a cat, too, the size of a small panther, with eyes like bulging cameras. And along with every passing locomotive or every piece of trashy décor, the cat is noticed by the film’s rapt gaze.
Amirpour is young, for someone who seems to know so much. She has been active in rock music, making short films out of UCLA film school and writing graphic novels. I’m sure this film quotes much of the time—there is a driving scene that has music fit for a Sergio Leone movie—but the references do not expect or need to be identified. Rather, Amirpour is interested in the tradition of film as dreamscape in which so much is deja vu, enough for us to feel the damp stain of vampirism in every love story ever told. In love, we drink from one another.
So A Girl is disarmingly simple (if that’s how you want to read it), or profound enough to be watched steadily as you grow older (if that is your plan). Might as well start now. This is the real thing.