Nostalgic Returns

Curator's Note

This clip from Ana Lily Amirpour's wildly successful film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) operates through nostalgia for a "lost" period of Iranian representation. The character in this scene is the prostitute at the center of the film. We watch her dance from the point-of-view of her client, a middle-aged (opium-addicted) Iranian man. The song, "Cheshme Man" by Iranian superstar singer, Dariush, provides a direct link to Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as to a nostalgic Iranian diaspora.

The dance references the dominant position occupied by women in commercial Iranian cinema prior to the Revolution. Often featuring women as performers in nightclubs and cabarets, this mode of representation was a focal point for the backlash against cinema as a vehicle for Western imperialism. It was also rejected by its contemporaneous radical cinema, the Iranian New Wave.

The film uses nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary period to present itself under the guise of the new--an Iranian vampire Western! But it does so through the "old"--an all too familiar dependency on the female body. Here, the female body is confined to yet another binary: to either soothe, administer, and seduce, as in the case of the dancing prostitute, or to replete others in the interest of self-preservation, as with the vampire.

A Girl Walks Home Alone taps into the West's cultural interest in Iran and the desire to move away from largely negative representations of the country that isolate it from the rest of the world. It visually inserts "things Iranian" (language, music) into a familiar landscape of Western styles, from Fellini, to the French New Wave, and Westerns, to film noir. But the return of the figure of the dancing nightclub performer by way of the prostitute suggests a troubling relationship between a nostalgic return and an investment in creating new, positive associations with Iran. What does the film gain by returning to this particular moment in Iranian cinema?

We might consider that, on the one hand, despite the female driven narrative, the use of nostalgia in fact reinforces woman as spectacle. On the other hand, the figure of the young, female vampire who speaks accented Persian is a coy wink to the hysteria over the image of woman on Iranian screens. Does this figure also suggest the rejection of the imagined spectator of Iranian cinema as always heterosexually male? The vampire is after all, the custodian of Bad City. She stalks the inhabitants and is the one who is always watching.


Great post Sara! I'm very interested in this film as well. I'm glad to see it being discussed in terms of its relationship to an earlier era of Iranian cinema since this is not something that has been part of its popular critical reception here in the UK. I would love to hear more about these links! Do you think these 'things Iranian' inserted into the Western landscape in AGWHAAN bear any relation to Hamid Naficy's accented cinema? Amirpour herself is an interesting figure in interviews who appears relatively at ease with a wide range of influences. For me, the film fits my interest in films that deal with what it means to be a woman in public. I see the vampire in this film as a representation of the flaneuse, which fits in with your final thought that she is the observer and custodian of Bad City. However, the problem of her monstrousness being the key to her power and independence remains.

Thanks, Sarah. I think Naficy's notion of accented cinema is highly relevant here, particularly in terms of his discussion of a work's relation to an imagined homeland. And I think for a lot of young diasporic Iranian artists (and to a degree also for those who grew up and continue to work in Iran), the pre-revolutionary era is something that lives through another generation's recollections, photographs, and through these makeshift clips from various forms of media. This is especially the case for pre-revolutionary cinema (versus, for example, music), which for the most part hasn't been re-issued on DVD in any official capacity and is a lot harder to find, though that is changing. Naficy's A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2, discusses in great detail "film farsi," the domestic commercial cinema that featured as one of its modes women in these types of roles.

Really nice post, Sara! Your reading of "nostalgia" for "woman as spectacle" is quite interesting. The earlier nightclub performance scene presents a very different view of woman as object-to-be-looked than the dancer in A GIRL WALKS HOME, and I'm intrigued by this question that you pose about the type of spectator each produces. What I think is most striking about the this comparison is the contrast in framing of shots. In the earlier clip, the straight-on shots of both the female performer and the men watching suggest an unquestioned relationship of who looks and who is looked at. But in the GIRL WALKS HOME clip, we only have a profile of the client, from an angle that seems to disrupt the spatial arrangement of the room and his distance from the dancer. This difference suggests an ambiguous relationship between image and spectator both within and outside the film.

That's a great observation about the ambiguous relationship suggested by the framing, Michelle. I think one of the things that continues to interest me about this film is the way it thinks through the various inheritances of looking from pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema, post-revolutionary cinema (where the look is always assumed to be a priori heterosexual and male), Hollywood, and the various European art cinemas whose influence can be seen in the film. I think the strange angle of the shot of the client is an acknowledgement of the excessive influences and perhaps also the heady quality of diasporic nostalgia, which is accentuated by the opium use in this scene.

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