This year’s Oscar nominations are announced on January 15. In anticipation of the conventional wisdom the Academy will likely uphold, we’re highlighting unlikely candidates—the dark horses we’d love to see compete on Oscar night.
An Iranian teenage vampire romance filmed in luscious black and white, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night remains one of the most visually evocative marvels of last year, a beautiful chiaroscuro affair that co-mingles seductiveness and terror. With all due respect to its other aesthetic achievements (including expert sound design and a sterling ’80s pop soundtrack), Ana Lily Amirpour’s maiden directorial effort is a film that thrives on her collaboration with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, which results in more stunning imagery than any other 2014 release. More importantly, however, its cinematography serves as a vital storytelling tool, with Amirpour and Vincent using their visual schema to wordlessly convey the shifting emotional and thematic dynamics of their tale about a disaffected young man named Arash (Arash Marandi) and the relationship he forms with nameless, burqa-wearing bloodsucker The Girl (Sheila Vand).
That story concerns two lonely souls searching for contentment—and a future more promising than their present—through an unlikely affair. The narrative is rooted in contrasts: between Arash’s humanity and The Girl’s monstrousness; between alienation and attachment; between Western and Iranian cultures; and between the film’s modernity and its links (and references) to cinema history. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night expresses these dualities in purely visual terms, through static and handheld camerawork (the latter in sudden moments of agitation and anger) and especially its gorgeous monochromatic palette. Inky blacks constantly threaten to overwhelm any sense of light, even as fluorescent whites expand past their source’s borders, straining valiantly to gain traction, if not domination, over the surrounding darkness. Such black-and-white imagery is a reflection of, and means of articulating, the figurative dialogue taking place between the material’s conflicting forces. Thus, for example, when Arash is introduced wearing a white shirt, and soon afterwards The Girl is first spied cloaked in her black burqa, the film immediately suggests their polar-opposite differences, as well as how their saga is one that symbolically pits life (and love) against death.
Amirpour and Vincent’s use of blooming whites amid oppressive blackness often results in images with smudgy, rounded corners, making the frame resemble an old-school iris shot. Like the early sight of drug-dealing pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) and morose prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) spied through a car’s round windows, these compositions come across as deliberate homages to silent movies—specifically Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s silent black-and-white vampire classic—and that link is additionally underscored by A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s minimal dialogue. Alongside Arash’s James Dean-like appearance and vintage ’50s American convertible, as well as the soundtrack’s ’80s-era songs, these shout-outs create the impression that the filmmakers are deliberately attempting to channel their ancestors, and hence communicate across both cultural and generational divides.
The interplay between light and dark is pervasive throughout A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, but so too is the frequent use of expressionistic visual lines cutting through the frame. Beginning with a title-card shot of Arash walking, right to left, across the screen alongside a diagonal traffic barrier, Amirpour and Vincent repeatedly bifurcate their images with severe horizontal and/or diagonal lines to visualize their characters’ disconnection from their environment (the fictional “Bad City”), those with whom they interact, and each other. This tactic also involves lens flares, which amputate lonely characters’ heads to intimate isolation and disharmony, or frame the couple together to imply closeness. The film is steeped in visual divisions: a car’s hood splitting the screen in two as Saeed speaks with Atti; a beam of lamp light stabbing Arash like a knife; a power line cutting across the white sky; a transvestite dancing around a courtyard with her arms extended in a horizontal line, a balloon’s string held between both hands.
Those segregating lines reach an apex during a late sequence in which Arash and The Girl, having already spent a momentous first night together, rendezvous the following evening at a power plant. Amirpour and Vincent begin the sequence with a master shot that places both characters beneath the horizontal visual line created by background smoke stacks and electrical equipment, thereby underlining how—despite their budding feelings for each other—they remain boxed in by their differences, as well as by their tentativeness. Nonetheless, after Arash offers The Girl a hamburger, the camera cuts closer, so that the two are superimposed over that same background horizontal line, suggesting that Arash’s gesture has brought them closer, and helped momentarily transcend the forces that would keep them apart. The following shot-reverse-shot close-ups intensify that sense of mounting intimacy, though it doesn’t last, and as The Girl leaves Arash alone, the camera cuts back to the original master shot—except now, a passing train supplants the power-plant visual line hovering above them, and, consequently, further emphasizes the divisions separating them.
Another recurring device employed by Amirpour and Vincent is the focus-pull. The filmmakers continually stage shots in which the focus shifts, without an edit, from a background character to a foreground character (or vice versa) in order to impart a change in their interpersonal dynamics. By transitioning, within a given two-person shot, from shallow-focus (i.e. the foreground is sharp) to deep-focus (i.e. the background is sharp) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night silently communicates who has power, and who doesn’t, at any instant. In nearly every scene, a focus-pull demarcates the moment at which dominance (of a physical, emotional, or psychological sort) has transferred from one to another. Moreover, by persistently changing points of focus, the film creates an atmosphere of both dissonant tension and unpredictable haziness, as if the action is in a relentless state of flux between rival forces—an impression that’s then augmented by frequent slow-motion, which bestows the proceedings with a dreaminess that’s at once enticingly sensual and eerily malevolent.
Ultimately just as important to A Girl Who Walks Home Alone At Night’s cinematographic strategy is its framing. Amirpour and Vincent alternate between piercing close-ups and portentous panoramas of environments (and structures) dwarfing tiny figures, all while visually positioning characters in ways that emphasize their current circumstances. The film’s compositional exquisiteness reaches a crescendo in the film’s centerpiece scene, a ravishing single-take in slow-motion from one fixed camera position. Set in The Girl’s apartment after she discovers Arash (dressed as Dracula because of a costume party) wandering the streets zonked out of his mind on ecstasy, it begins by lingering on The Girl, seen from the waist up and drenched in white, on the right side of the frame. Soon, a darkness-shrouded Arash appears from the left and slowly approaches her, until they embrace, at which point The Girl opts not to bite Arash’s neck but to place her head on his chest—therefore creating an image in which their bodies visually merge into one dark mass. Combining many of the filmmakers’ favored visual devices in order to create a sense of romantic longing, of taut suspense, and of separation giving way to unity, it’s a triumph of formal technique. It also epitomizes how A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night conveys both narrative and emotional detail through its superb cinematography.