The Persian-language A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) opens with lingering, appreciative shots of Arash (Arash Maradni), in a James Dean t-shirt and jeans, carrying a cat through the lyrically dissolute, black-and-white streets of Bad City. The camera takes a moment from tracking his progress to show us a close-up of the face of Atti (Mozhan Marnò), a sex worker. Atti's eyes follow Arash hungrily, and her gaze becomes the gaze of the camera. Arash, with his delicate features and slender physique, is an object of desire, fascination and interest. He’s on screen to be watched and fetishized.
In vampire films, the vampire's gaze is often connected to the gaze of the male viewer. In the Hammer Dracula films, Christopher Lee's hypnotic eyes make bosoms heave and virgins acquiesce. Vampire, male viewer, and director all conspire in displaying and appreciating young, endowed women revealed and undone by the camera. The vampiric thirst, the stalking, the seduction, the control, are all a metaphor for the film itself, which looks and captures and feeds upon women's images.
Girl Walks Home Alone director Ana Lily Amirpour deliberately inverts that tradition. Her nameless vampire (Sheila Vand) spends most of the film dressed in a chador; her body is mostly obscured, so that only her face, looking out, is visible. When she goes home with the drug dealer and minor criminal Saeed (Dominic Rains), it isn't her who undresses and dances, but him. He seductively opens his shirt, revealing multiple tattoos, including one on his neck reading "SEX." She sucks his finger as foreplay, and then bites it off—turning the phallic vampire fangs into a vagina dentata. Christopher Lee's gaze transforms women into isolated breasts and mouths and necks, body parts to be appreciated and consumed. So Vand's gaze transforms Saeed into a severed penis, which is literally and figuratively devoured.
In Ken Russell's flamboyantly campy Lair of the White Worm (1988) or Neil Jordan's Byzantium (2012), the gaze reversal is presented as exhilarating; the male directors imagine female vampires exulting in the power of objectifying, controlling, and eating both men and women.
The female gaze in Girl Walks Home Alone can be satisfying too—Saeed is a jerk and a bully, and there's narrative satisfaction in his humiliating and bloody demise. But the vampire's gaze is also uncomfortably wrong. In probably the creepiest moment in the film, the vampire stalks a small child, and asks him repeatedly if he's a good boy. As he trembles, she shows her fangs, threatens to tear his eyes out of his skull, and promises that she'll be watching him always, so he'd better behave. Women's gaze becomes an all encompassing threat; director as god as monster Santa Claus.
Arash's father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh), an addict, gives voice to a similar gaze paranoia. During a breakdown, he begins yelling at the house cat, who he thinks is staring at him with his dead wife's eyes. "Did you come here to watch me? Are you watching me?" he yells, stumbling around the house in a panic, as the cat, and the camera, watch.
The cat is a male; we know because in an early scene Saeed, bullying Arash, asks him whether the cat is a boy or a girl, before checking and calling it "Mr. Cat." Hussein is therefore mistaken when he confusedly identifies the cat's gaze as female—and the film seems to suggest at points that the female gaze is a mistake, or a problem. In one romantic interlude, Arash offers the vampire earrings as a gift, though he belatedly realizes she can't wear them because her ears aren't pierced. She urges him to pierce her ears with a safety pin, giving him the role of vampire penetrating her, so she can wear earrings and become more stereotypically feminine.
"What do you see all this time watching me?" Atti asks the vampire, to which the vampire replies, "You're sad." The gaze is knowledge and power, but it's a tragic knowledge. The vampire gets to see, but she doesn't get to enjoy seeing; the reversal of power isn't empowering. Instead, the gaze of the vampire is perverse, violent and dangerous. Female power is occasionally pleasurable, as when the vampire takes the skateboard from the young boy she's threatened and rides it down the street, chador flowing bat-like in the wind. But despite such moments, overall the female gaze is monstrous and tragic. The vampire can't free herself from the bleak landscape of Bad City. For that, she needs a man.
Thus, Arash is an object of desire and a pretty face, but he's also, insistently if not quite effectively, shoved into the role of protagonist. In one sequence, he actually goes to a costume party dressed as Dracula; high on drugs, he ends up stumbling into the vampire on a suburban street, as if he's planning on going Halloweening. "I'm lost," he says, and she ends up pushing him home with her on her skateboard. The narrative keeps nudging him to be the vampire, and then deflating, half in amusement, half in disappointment, when he isn't. "You don't know what I've done," the vampire tells him. He doesn't see her, and how can you be a romantic lead if you don't have the privilege of the camera's eye? Arash should be the gazer, not the gazed upon.
The film keeps pushing Arash to be the active protagonist moving the plot. When the vampire, without Arash's knowledge, murders his father, she ends up unintentionally setting him up to do the thing romantic leads do: which is to say he swoops in and takes her away from all this. The vampire with the female gaze manipulates him, not to his doom, like a femme fatale, but into a stereotypical male savior role.
Male saviors are supposed to be the ones who control the gaze; it's Van Helsing directing the plot to defeat the vampire and save the damsels in those old Dracula films. In A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, though, the damsel has the gaze and the power. Yet, the story ends up in much the same place, as if the gaze has a mind of its own, whatever body it's supposedly attached to.
The last scene of the film, in which the cat standing on a car dashboard looks impassively out at the camera, reiterates the question Saeed asked at the beginning of the film. What gender is that kitty's gaze, anyway? And does it matter once it’s sunk its teeth into you?