One of the top picks in the outstanding selection of this year’s Etrange Festival, Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature mixes sumptuous high contrast black and white cinematography, Italian Western music, Jim Jarmusch driftiness, comics influences, Farsi language and a chador-wearing skateboarding vampire girl to create a seductive, singular world entirely her own.
In the Iranian ghost town of Bad City, a hard-working boy with a 50s car and a junkie father tries to confront the nasty drug-dealer who has them under his thumb, and encounters a strange, silent black-cloaked girl in the process. Tentative love slowly develops between the two even though unbeknownst to Arash the Girl continues to stalk the streets at night and feed on the desperado denizens of Bad City.
The loose narrative meanders with achingly beautiful melancholy through one poetic moment after another. The Girl’s skateboard rescuing of a tripping Arash dressed as Dracula in a deserted street is sweet and funny. The oppressive, forbidding-looking machinery in an oil field is a recurrent backdrop, most notably in a scene where a romantic gift is received in a way that undercuts any potential sentimentality. Similarly, a slow-motion scene of developing intimacy set to White Lies’ ‘Death’ is both tender and charged with an undercurrent of danger.
The love between Arash and the Girl slowly grows amid a sombre world where relationships are all tainted: Arash’s parents, the tragic prostitute Atti with Arash’s father Hossein and the abusive drug dealer/pimp have woven webs of desperation, selfishness, violence and untold grief, sometimes punctuated by awkward, misdirected affection. As the bond between Arash and the Girl tightens, they discover that love is about accepting the other’s ‘badness’ and finding the human warmth you didn’t even know you longed for.
Detached and alone, the Girl is a terrific character, both touching and fearsome, combining childlike ingenuity with a menacing edge. Her charismatic presence quietly dominates the film, and she only needs to appear to create a force field of dark energy on the screen. There is also the clear intimation that she and Atti, the only two women in the film – and maybe the street urchin who has a few alarming encounters with the Girl – know more than the hapless male characters, who do not seem to perceive the forces that influence their lives.
Rich in atmosphere, deliberately slow and stylized, the film is in the vein of Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive and Nadja, using the vampire figure to dreamily evoke loneliness, desperation and the slim hope for a non-toxic human connection. With very little dialogue, the film uses a striking, luminous visual language of its own creation to tell the beginning of cautious new love. A true gem that is not to be missed.
Watch the trailer: