I had a wonderfully restful winter holiday, and I spent a large part of my time watching a bunch of movies. One of the more standout ones that I came across on Netflix was a Persian language horror movie called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
The premise for this story is that there is a city where bad people do bad things, and a young man named Arash is struggling to get by because he has to take care of his father, who is a heroin addict. At the same time Arash is dealing with his difficulties, there is an unnamed girl who wanders the streets alone after dark in a chador who seeks out men who do evil things and sucks their blood. Eventually, Arash and the girl meet and become romantically entangled. From there, things become complicated.
Now, there are some things about this movie that I absolutely love, mostly from a visual perspective. The story is often slow moving, and the ending seems like it’s trying to go somewhere but it doesn’t really feel like it’s fully reached it, but those are minor things because this is a film that was made with the intention of being watched. It’s shot in black and white, and the visuals are gorgeous. Being a vampire story, much of the visual style evokes old Hammer horror movies, with lots of shots that linger on deep shadows and emphasize the contrast between light and dark (this is most striking with the girl, whose face is starkly pale against the black of her chador). You also get the obligatory Dracula shout outs that serve to highlight the difference between apparent and actual power dynamics (Arash wears an adorable homemade costume to a party at one point, which contrasts hilariously when he encounters the girl on his way home; where he looks like a more traditional Dracula, he’s totally helpless compared to the girl in her chador, whom we know is a very dangerous predator).
And really, it’s that exploration of social roles that’s at the heart of this movie. Being set in Iran, there are some underlying assumptions about the roles of men and women being explored. The three women that we meet in this movie all have varying levels of power over the men around them despite the social expectations that women in this society are in need of protection from men. Shaydah, the daughter of Arash’s wealthy boss, isn’t supposed to be in situations where she is alone with a non-relative man, but the first key scene between her and Arash highlights how class differences put him at a significant disadvantage. Later at the costume party, after Arash has acquired Saeed’s stash of drugs and has begun selling them, he appears to be on more even footing with Shaydah; they’re in a place that’s dominated by young people, where the more conservative social mores don’t hold sway and he’s now engaged in work that transcends his economic class. The fact that even with this apparently more even playing field Arash still finds himself rejected by Shaydah underscores that the reduced power differential is largely an illusion; Shaydah’s interest in Arash has shifted so that while she doesn’t seriously consider him as a romantic or sexual partner, she does see his newfound value as a supplier of drugs.
Paralleled with Shaydah is Atti the sex worker. Early on we learn that Atti is in a difficult position working for Saeed. He isn’t satisfied with the amount of money she earns as a prostitute, and he forces her to perform oral sex on him as a form of compensation (this act is the inciting incident that leads the girl to hunt down and kill Saeed at the end of the movie’s first act). At the same time that Atti is vulnerable in this relationship, she also demonstrates a level of power over Hossein, Arash’s father. Atti has a history with Hossein, but she makes it clear to him that without money she has no interest in having another sexual encounter with him. It’s a small exercise of power, but a significant one, as Atti sees her world being entirely circumscribed by her role as a sex worker; refusing to have unpaid sex is one of the few ways she’s able to legitimately assert control over her situation. In the movie’s final act, where Hossein acquires Arash’s stash of drug money when Arash abandons him in a fit of frustration and anger, Atti finally consents to sex with Hossein now that he is able to pay. Unfortunately, Hossein also coerces Atti into taking heroin with him, violating her in a way similar to what Saeed did at the movie’s start. The consequences of Hossein’s actions follow a similar trajectory to Saeed’s.
The girl herself is an interesting middle ground between Shaydah with her feigned vulnerability and Atti with her projected strength. The girl interacts with all of the speaking male characters in the movie, and her interactions range from outright violent (she murders Hossein without any pretense to vulnerability for what he does to Atti) to remarkably vulnerable (as her relationship with Arash develops, she allows a significant level of intimacy). Except for the incident with Hossein, which is driven by rage at how he’s treated Atti, every interaction the girl has with a man contains an element of deception as she hides her true nature. The girl recognizes that an appearance of vulnerability is valuable for attracting the attention of these men, whether it’s for the purposes of revenge and feeding, like with Saeed, or in order to establish a simple emotional connection, like with Arash. Underlying all of these deceptions is a basic despair over the girl’s nature; she hates what she is, and she doesn’t think she can manage real personal connections without hiding her strength.
The confounding factor in all this is Arash, whom the girl attracts at first because she finds him helplessly wandering the streets, too high to manage by himself. She takes him home and they share an intimate evening listening to music. Arash, like all the other men the girl meets, is quite vulnerable with her, but he has the added layer of also appearing vulnerable, having just been rejected by Shaydah and still tripping on the ecstasy he takes at the costume party. Arash is the only fully grown man who doesn’t pretend to be in a position of power with the girl (the young homeless boy whom she scares into giving her his skateboard is also visibly frightened by her, but considering that he’s a child it doesn’t carry quite the same social implications), which I think is what makes him attractive to her. Of course, the girl maintains her charade when around him, even after she has murdered Hossein and Arash finds his cat, which he had left with Hossein, in her apartment. I’m still trying to grok this revelation at the movie’s end; Arash figures out that the girl killed his father, and despite knowing this, he neither tells her he knows nor does she confess to him. There’s some apparent angst as Arash tries to decide what to do, but he ultimately accepts her. There are a lot of complex emotions surrounding this, since Arash’s relationship with his father is shown to be a difficult one (Arash resents Hossein’s drug addiction, but he does what he can to take care of the man). Beyond that, you also have the realization on Arash’s part that the girl isn’t as vulnerable as he allowed himself to believe, which seems like part of his attraction to her. I think it’s somewhat hopeful that Arash chooses to accept her even after learning that she doesn’t fit his initial understanding of her.
Overall, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a lot to offer both visually and thematically. It’s a great film to watch for the visuals, but it also offers a pretty complex exploration of perceived and actual power dynamics between men and women in a conservative social setting.