Female Desire and Feminist Rage: Ana Lily Amirpour's Reworking of the Vampire Motif in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Central to this essay is the feature film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by the Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour. The director binds viewers to a vampire’s point of view – one that expresses both female desire and feminist anger – by using film-specific stylistic devices such as the depth of field, framing, lighting, sound, and location. The film embraces feelings of anger and rage when confronted with patriarchal domination and violence, and turns these feelings into liberatory tools that give rise to both feminist analysis and agency. And while gender oppression is rejected violently, the film also establishes a community of care that amends, escapes, reveals, and resists patriarchal and capitalist oppression.
Keywords: feminist rage, sexual and gender-specific violence, film-specific stylistic devices, depth of field, framing, and lighting, vampire technology
In her debut feature film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour plays with images. In this highly acclaimed film, a nameless female vampire roams Bad City as an avenging angel to terrorize violent men. Amirpour references the Western, rebel and vampire films, the black-and-white design of comic books, and the style of the gothic subculture to rework the classic archive of images from these various styles in feminist terms. The film establishes the vampire as a figure that expresses female desire and feminist rage to intervene into patriarchal structures.
Amirpour exploits the primary identification with the camera (Metz; Baudry) that is generic to films to establish a non-anthropomorphic point of view, one that is aligned with a vampire’s predatory gaze. In Metz’s and Baudry’s understanding, it is the camera that determines what is given-to-be-seen and how it is depicted, while viewers have to succumb to this viewpoint unless they opt to look away. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the camera’s perspective often concentrates on bodily details: medium close-up shots or close-up shots prevail, while the background becomes blurred through a shallow depth of field: a point of view that is artificial, and does not imitate human sight, but rather imagines a vampire’s perception. In such film scenes, the camera’s gaze expresses a desire for intimate closeness through the close-ups, through its way of looking at the film’s characters; while the images shown, the ones that viewers see on screen, capture how characters are affected by the agent whose gaze is expressed by the camera’s point of view, and whose desire for closeness, expressed by the close-ups, oftentimes turns suddenly into a predator’s attack. Through this technique, the viewer is sutured to the point of view of a predator who singles out its human prey: viewers are aligned, by the camera, to a vampire’s gaze that in this film comes to express female desire and feminist rage aimed at destroying masculinist violence. This article shows that the nameless vampire embodies “feminist rage that identifies gender oppression, sexual violence, and sexual humiliation for what they are and in doing so facilitates feminist countering of embodied inferiority, reductive sexualization, and sexual humiliation” (Taylor 99). The film offers a liberating point of view that embraces the feeling of rage and anger when confronted with sexual violence and gender oppression, and turns rage into a feminist analytical and agential tool for understanding and changing patriarchal destructiveness. This emancipatory embodiment and feminist point of view are brought into being through several major stylistic devices: depth of field, framing, lighting, sound, and location. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, depth of field is used to introduce a female vampire’s point of view that is apt to single out violent men, and that embraces loving ones; framing becomes a device that outlines female-identified characters’ social conditions; through lighting, the limiting and delimiting qualities of locations are explored, while sound and location provide a larger commentary on intradiegetic and extradiegetic developments. The film thereby goes beyond the depicted action in its own universe to provide viewers with an alternative feminist viewpoint that rejects gender oppression vehemently, and that seeks out and explores relationships that escape, rework, expose, and oppose violent patriarchal and capitalist social structures.
Vampires are beings that are connected to social reality but do not belong to it (cf. Auerbach, Calafell, Schopp). They began to populate imaginary worlds in the nineteenth century, when stories and novels like The Vampyre (Byron and Polidori), Carmilla (Le Fanu) or Dracula (Stoker) appeared. While the representation of vampires has undergone great changes – from a menace to humankind as depicted in films like Nosferatu (Murnau) to potential partners of human beings, as explored in the HBO-series True Blood (Ball) or in The Twilight Saga (Meyer) – all the various literary and visual manifestations provide us with information about social reality. Vampires represent a deviation from the norm. They hold up a mirror to a society but disappear behind the mirrors themselves. As Nina Auerbach argues, the changing nature of vampires reflects particular social anxieties of a given age: possibilities that are meant to be excluded from a given social formation, but that remain vitally and suspiciously strong (4-5). They are connected to the world over which they cast their shadows, and which they threaten. This threat can certainly have a liberating effect, as it does in the film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The exploitative, constrictive and dependent social relationships depicted in the film are attacked by a nameless vampire, the film's main character played by Sheila Vand, who embodies feminist rage. The film uses its own cinematic means to illuminate and highlight these dysfunctional relationships, inventing alternatives of sociality like allyship, friendship, and partnership. To show how this is done, I will discuss the following particular forms of image-making in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: characters are often shot by the camera with a shallow depth of field, they are shown within a visual frame, and lighting and music emphasize the message, enhance the theme or mood.
The shallow depth of field used in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night makes characters stand out as pin-sharp images against a blurred background, bringing the characters closer to the viewers. Details of a face, often captured by the camera through a close-up or semi-close-up, are made familiar to the viewers through the sharp camera focus. For example, viewers soon become familiar with the many tattoos on the body of Saeed (Dominic Rains), a petty criminal drug dealer and pimp: the broken heart he wears on his neck, the word sex on his throat, the blood-spitting Pacman adorning his carotid artery, the Persian characters and ornaments on his torso, the brass knuckles he wears on his right ring and middle finger. In the seduction scene with the nameless vampire – the girl who goes home alone at night – the camera captures the two in detail, while the room itself becomes shadowy. Objects in Saeed's apartment, such as the manifold animal trophies adorning his walls or the tiger skin on his couch, hazily allude to the theme of the hunt: it remains unclear, however, whether Saeed is in this case the hunter or the hunted. The shallow depth of field deceives viewers into thinking that they get to know characters down to the last detail: a fallacy, since the characters appear isolated from the depicted setting. What is in the foreground is razor-sharp, while objects, people, and landscapes in the background elude the viewers’ gaze. The shallow depth of field thereby enhances a danger that Mary Ann Doane points out in her discussion of “The Close-Up. Scale and Detail in the Cinema.” She writes: “The close-up in general is disengaged from the mise-en-scène, frightened with an inherent separability or isolation, a ‘for itself’ that inevitably escapes, to some degree, the tactics of continuity editing that strives to make it ‘whole’ again. … The image becomes, once more, an image rather than a threshold onto a world” (90-91). The close-up as a technique disrupts the narrative, severing the scene from the unfolding actions when it indexically and a-temporally refers primarily to itself (cf. Wiese 373). The shallow depth of field limits the viewer’s knowledge about the scene.
The shallow depth of field thus ensures that characters are highlighted and appear in intimate proximity before the viewers’ eyes, while their relation to the surroundings remains blurred. In the case of Saeed, this deceptive focusing can be read as intensifying a gaze on his body that blots out everything else: a demanding gaze that turns Saeed into an object, exposes and highlights him, and goes hand in hand with the promise of sex. What the shallow depth of field highlights, then, is the desirability of characters in the eyes of others, but also their alienation from the lives of others, their lack of relationship and loneliness. They are separated from their environment. It is the characters' alienation from others and their environment that is deadly in A Girl Walks Home at Night, especially in the case of Saeed, who is himself a harbinger of death and destruction. In the micro-cosmos of Bad City, Saeed, the petty pimp and drug dealer, is but one cog in a system of “dead labor” (Marx) apt to suck all life out of its society’s members. As Marx observes in his chapter on the working day in Capital I, capital (or “dead labor”) as the product of past labor needs to be reanimated by living labor in a process that strains and exploits laborers and reduces their life-capacity (cf. McNally, Shaviro, Tyner). The drugs Saeed sells create a life-destroying dependency and stupor for Hossein (Marshall Manesh), father of main character Arash (Arash Marandi); Saeed violently exploits the sex worker Atti (Mozahn Marnò) when he forces her to perform fellatio on him, refuses to pay her for her services, and abuses her verbally.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night seems to suggest that the nameless vampire seeks Saeed out because exploitation and violence are the only means by which he accrues status, privileges, and money. Furthermore, Saeed embodies the interests and values in capitalist society. He is the perfect example of toxic masculinity within patriarchal capitalism; his violent acts, sanctioned by Bad City’s society, can only be averted through the avenging vampire. Saeed’s sexual coercion and extortion of Atti is mirrored in the seduction scene in which the vampire takes Saeed’s finger into her month as if to perform fellatio on it, only to bite off his finger and subsequently sink her teeth into his throat to suck his blood until he is dead. In “Queer Utopias and a (Feminist) Iranian Vampire,” Shadee Abdi and Bernadette Marie Calafell comment on this scene that “[t]he Girl is the anti-hero who uses monstrous feminism to free Bad City of one of its biggest criminals; a drug dealer and pimp who performed toxic masculinity and violence” (364). Saeed’s death can be seen as a liberation from patriarchal pugnacity, an interpretation supported by the intradiegetic plot development in which he is robbed of his accrued wealth, only to disappear into oblivion within the intradiegetic world. The film hints intertextually at rape revenge films, in which violence of rape victims against their perpetrators is approved of and sanctioned (cf. Ferreday, Heller-Nicholas, Read).
The shallow depth of field can also achieve other effects, and work in tandem with visual effects like framing. At the beginning of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the sex worker Atti is introduced. Initially, viewers can see her out of focus as a blurred figure in the distance, while Saeed, who is her pimp, is in razor-sharp focus in the foreground of the frame. Only when Atti enters Saeed's unwholesome sphere is she clearly visible. In the following scene, in which Saeed forces Atti to perform oral sex in Arash’s Ford Thunderbird, both are repeatedly shown through the framing car window. Atti thus appears as a framed portrait, a stylistic device that provides a commentary on the intradiegetic story world. Through the framing, Atti appears as someone who is prevented from interacting freely with her environment by the frame itself: she becomes an image contained within a frame. The frame motif also appears in the scene in which Atti meets the nameless vampire. When the vampire offers her jewelry, Atti takes her to her apartment. In the scene that follows, Atti is repeatedly framed: by doors that offer entrance to her room, or in a mirror from which she looks at the vampire. The dialogue between Atti and the vampire sheds light on the reason for Atti’s inability to break free from debilitating constrictions: “You remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting” is the vampire’s explanation for Atti’s passivity, lack of perspective, and hopelessness. In this account, the bodily activity of wanting has been lost, leaving Atti with a focus on objects rather than feelings. According to Abdi and Calafell, the interaction with the vampire is, however, productive in the sense that it creates “a moment of a shared sense of sadness, desire, and hope for other potentialities” while it creates an alignment between the vampire and Atti in their struggle against patriarchal violence (366). In the last scene in which Atti appears, she is also framed: she is seen dancing against the light, surrounded by a door frame. She is not dancing for herself, she is dancing for her client Hossein; the promise that she can “step out of the frame” and escape the images projected on her remains unfulfilled. The composition of these powerful images depicts Atti as a character held captive by the frame. When Hossein injects heroin into Atti’s arm against her will and leaves her unconscious, the vampire comes to her aid. Although Atti recovers, the viewer does not know whether she will find her way back to her own embodied wishes and desires, or if she remains in exploitative relationships, since she disappears as a character from the screen after it becomes known to the viewer that she survived Hossein’s violent deed.
Several stylistic devices, including the use of light, help to reveal the relationship between Arash and his father Hossein. Shades of grey dominate those film scenes that are set in their household. When their intimate living quarters are introduced, it seems as if the television is the only source of light in the room, its flickering shimmers illuminating Hossein injecting himself with heroin. Next to the television, glaring neon-light at times shines mercilessly on their sparse belongings. Monotonous music accompanies Arash throughout several scenes, creating a sonic environment that underscores the unbearable droning on of everyday life: the pumping machines outside their door that extract the last drop of oil from the earth, the dogs that roam around piles of corpses, the daily routines and rituals of their family. Through lighting and music, it is clear that Arash and Hossein's relationship is based on routinized, monotonous exchanges that lack genuine love. The interruption of their life by the nameless female vampire is a liberation from their monotonous routines. Furthermore, the use of light is underscored in a scene that seems unrelated to the unfolding actions, and precisely because of this unrelatedness establishes a milieu in which new possibilities arise. In this scene, a transwoman named Rockabilly (Reza Sixo Safai) dances alone with a balloon in her hand on a roof-terrace on an ordinary, slightly overcast day. Because most scenes in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night take place during the night and are thus artificially lighted (night scenes are crafted in delicate details), the daylight scene stands out. It gives viewers a glimpse of a possible freedom in which one can dance, seemingly carefree, under the sky, a freedom embodied by a transwoman whose gender expression defies heteronormative expectations.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is defined by relationships – between father and son, husband and wife, partners and adversaries, man and beast, hunter and prey, machine and nature. These are relationships marked by exploitation, addiction, violence, and dependence, the negativity seeming inevitable because of the inherent evil of Bad City. The film relentlessly dulls these relationships by depicting them in monotonous greys, accompanied by somber sounds, and constricting and context-obstructing framing. These stylistic devices emphasize an underlying patriarchal and capitalistic social structure. The depicted intradiegetic world is about profit and gain on the backs of those perceived as weaker, like the sex worker Atti, and those who care and provide, as Arash does for his father. Nature itself is constantly exploited. Raw materials (oil, petrol) are mercilessly extracted, as shown in manifold images of oil drilling and refineries that refer to extractive industries. Human bodies become disposable waste: corpses are shown lying unburied in ditches, while people walk by carelessly, undisturbed. Almost no scene lacks a reference to the exchange of goods and services, some of which like sex work are extorted by force or by the means of persuasion for profit. Furthermore, the film underscores again and again that capitalist extraction and patriarchal structures (like the nuclear family, gender roles, and masculinist sexual violence and extortion) go inseparably hand in hand, a point that has been underscored by socialist feminists, too (cf. Brown, Eisenstein). Even Arash’s decrepit father Hossein feels entitled to take Atti prisoner by binding her hands forcefully, and then injecting heroin into her body.
However, the film also invents alternative relationships. For one, the profit of patriarchal capitalism is undermined by theft and robbery, which represent a shadow economy that turns, through the agency of Arash and the nameless vampire, into a gift economy. For instance, Saeed’s jewelry is gifted to Atti; Saeed’s money given to Hossein; and the earrings that Arash has stolen from his employer are offered to the vampire. Within the film diegesis, these gifts are valuable because they are based on sympathetic and loving relationships. In “Queer Utopias and a (Feminist) Iranian Vampire,” Abdi and Calafell observe that “[t]he vampire creates community rather than progeny,” placing the nameless vampire in a tradition of queerness that refuses to fulfill gender expectations (366). In the film, Atti and the vampire establish an alliance, Arash and the vampire a love relationship, and Arash can cut ties with his destructive father. These relationships deviate from profit orientation and establish the possibility of reciprocal giving and taking. The vampire facilitates relationships that are not a priori oriented towards profit, but towards the interpersonal gestures based on sympathy and love. The feminist rage that the vampire embodies when she rids Bad City from male perpetrators points toward the possibility of freedom, as it
deploys critical and creative capacities in self-transformative, counternormalizing, and counterhumiliating ways that in turn open onto, press for, and facilitate broader social transformation. The self-transformative effects of rage – the affirmation and actualization of the capacity for freedom – are counter-individuating. They inspire and motivate action aimed at bringing about broader social transformation judged to be both possible and necessary (Taylor 92).
The vampire’s attack on violent men, her efforts to eradicate toxic masculinity, go hand in hand with her ability to create a community in which women can feel supported, cherished, and protected against violence.
The power of image composition in the film, geared towards the exploration of non-exploitative, non-patriarchal relationships, is evident in the tender scene that takes place at the vampire’s basement flat, whose interior decoration is reminiscent of the 1980s Gothic subculture. As Mansbridge points out, “the Girl’s bedroom walls are covered with fake posters of 1980s icons: Margaret Atwood standing in as Madonna, Amirpour’s cousin and Elijah Wood (one of the film’s producers) dressed up as the Bee Gees, and Amirpour herself posing as Michael Jackson” (814). Additionally, the background is covered by wallpaper with a geometric diamond-shaped, half black, half white pattern, covered with small light spots from a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The vampire puts on “Death” by White Lies, and gently strokes the lid of the record player. Meanwhile, Arash stands up, pensively eyeing the disco ball, which he grasps with both hands and sets in motion. Points of light flicker on the walls, and in a very slow motion, Arash approaches the vampire, gradually appearing in the image frame in a half close-up from the left, the background blurs as the chorus of White Lies' “Death” kicks in: “Yes, this fear's got a hold on me.” The vampire, her back turned to him, smiles expectantly as her breathing quickens. When Arash gets very close to her, his contours form a perfect parallel with her hairline, and the geometric diamonds of the background, in black and white, are reflected in their clothes. The vampire also turns around very slowly, faces Arash, and bends his neck backwards. For a moment she seems to hesitate whether she should suck him. But precisely when the White Lies sing “Will the earth beneath my body shake? And cast your sleeping hearts awake?” she decides to instead lay her head against his chest. At the climax of “Death,” dominated by rhythmic drum beats, she listens to Arash's heart instead of sucking the life out of him. With this, their love affair is sealed, expressed in a sequence of images composed down to the last detail, a composition, with its geometric parallels and optical contrasts, that could hardly be more even and harmonious. The composition of the image, the choreography of sound and action, the lighting, the props: in this sequence, all the means at the film's disposal interweave to express an awakening love filled with tenderness rather than destruction. White Lies also sing of this: “That's why everything's got to be love or death.” The vampire had a choice; she chose love. This scene demonstrates that feminist anger aims at destroying violent patriarchal structures that hold women down and harm them physically and psychologically. With violence absent, it is possible to make a different choice aimed at building constructive and loving relationships.
However, since the film is built on the principle of the distorting mirror, even the tender love scene does not stand on its own when the vampire’s possibility to choose love is questioned toward the end of the film. After Arash finds his father dead in an alley, he initially drives around in his car aimlessly, in despair. Later that evening, the vampire finds him on her doorstep. She lets him into her apartment and he asks her to pack and leave Bad City with him today. “Come with me, I can't make it on my own,” he tells her, while he can be seen only by himself in the same composition as in the love scene. This time the vampire decides to come with him. But as she gathers her things, shoveling a plethora of jewelry into bags, Arash's cat shows up. Having previously given it to his father, Arash knows from that moment on that the vampire is to blame for his father's death. And while he seems to ponder during their flight from Bad City if he has taken the right course of action, he finally seems to choose for her. In the very last scene, the vampire and Arash are shown sitting in the Ford Thunderbird, framed by the front window, in perfect symmetry slowly turning to each other with a slight smile on their faces. It is a promise of tenderness and attraction, of mutual understanding, that even includes the cat, and in which Arash’s choice is one that affects the vampire as well.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night plays with the aberration from the norm and from normality to question and to comment on deviation in a variety of ways. This starts with Amirpour’s decisions as to where, with whom and in which language the film would be made. The film is set in a fictional Iran but shot in the USA. A cast that consists of exiled Iranian men, women, and transgender persons speak Persian throughout the film and are modelled on Western icons: Arash on James Dean, Atti on Sophia Loren, Saeed on Die Antwoord (Mansbridge 814). A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night refers to Iran, but in a manifoldly fractured way, through its main theme, the woman who walks home alone at night, clad in a chador; through recurring visual motifs such as ornaments, characters, television programs, practices of cosmetic surgery, street signs; through actors and actresses that are exiled Iranians; through the choice of Farsi as the intradiegetic film language. The film comments on social conditions in Iran, yet it does not depict them. The mirror imagery on which the film is based is thus necessarily distorted in several ways: firstly, the film is fictional, even fantastic, and thus comments on and mirrors reality in a distorted way; secondly, the conditions of exile are characterized by the fact that people can no longer visit their homeland in order to form a picture of the social reality there. Thus, the designed mirror image lacks the original in front of the mirror, just as the Iranians in exile lack Iran. Abdi and Calafell interpret these distortions as a construction of “a transnational middle or hybrid borderland of hope and belonging for a diaspora” (362). This interpretation of the setting as enabling is contested by Joanna Gwen Mansbridge, who points out that the film explores geopolitical entanglements between the United States and Iran that have existed historically for several decades and still continue to exist, with “blood, oil, and drugs” as their main content (812). The geopolitical involvement of the USA has shaped the Persian Gulf region greatly, from their support of the Shah-regime to their recent military involvement in several wars (Elton). Iran, as a transit country, plays a crucial role in illegal drug trafficking, while in 2019, the USA has been the country with the highest rate (4%) of illicit drug use per capita world-wide (Richie and Roser). It is not far-fetched to see “blood, oil, and drugs” (812) as these two countries’ nodes of entanglement, as Mansbridge suggests.
The figure of the vampire has liberatory potential, precisely because she establishes alliance, friendship, and partnership with those characters (women and girls, sex and care workers, transgender people) who are sidelined or deemed “other” in current Iranian discourse, and in current US discourse, too. Abdi and Calafell argue that in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night the vampire’s attack on violent men and her enabling of a community of outsiders inscribe her into feminist and queer traditions that go far beyond a patriarchal and capitalism-oriented script of success, career, and the nuclear family. The camera in the film explores a desiring, sensual female gaze, and the expression of feminist rage against violent men. The film comments on relationships, some of which are exploitative, violent, selfish, profit-oriented. It is on these latter relationships that the vampire casts her menacing gaze when she suddenly turns into an avenger. Furthermore, she acts as a driver for the exploration of alternative relationships that are based on the politics of the gift. Her character creates and seeks out relationships that are harmonious and liberating. It is the longing for an authentic relationship that drives the film.
Amirpour uses film’s traditional stylistic means along with the powerful imagining of the vampire’s non-anthropomorphic gaze to first explore patriarchal domination and then to explore its antithesis, loving, supporting relationships of free choice, to finally achieve, in this film, a thoroughly harmonious design.
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