Bouncing back in style from her dystopian misfire The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour’s impish and enjoyably genre-bending fantasy sets a young woman with mysterious mind control powers, Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), on the run in New Orleans. Like Amirpour’s excellent 2014 vamp western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it has a mischievous twinkle in its eye. Imagine Jim Jarmusch made Midnight Run and you’re on the right track.
Before careering towards an ending straight out of the ’80s action-comedy playbook, Mona Lisa’s roamings through New Orleans have a languid, loosey-goosey feel: a bit Down By Law-ish, even. Breaking out of an asylum with her (never explained) telekinetic powers, she crosses paths with a skeezily charming drug dealer (Ed Skrein, great in a role once earmarked for Zac Efron), swerves Craig Robinson’s dogged cop, then falls in with Kate Hudson’s stripper, Bonnie, and her 11-year-old son Charlie. Soon, Bonnie has her using her powers to fleece a group of obnoxious punters at the club, and then unsuspecting ATM users out of their cash.
Unlike Bonnie and her cash grabs, Amirpour isn’t here to exploit those superpowers for quick thrills: they’re a way to harness traditional sources of male power – money, guns, physicality – and use them against oppressive men. The odd oppressive woman, too.
Jong-seo made an eye-catching debut as the mystery girl at the centre of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, and Amirpour mines some of that same quality – and a bit extra – as the slowly thawing Mona Lisa (yes, her smile is enigmatic). The radically reinvented Hudson gets the showiest moments. Her intro here – all dagger-like yellow nails and rassy, no-fucks-given attitude – is surely the moment she shakes off her romcom past for good.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon’s mash-up of genre influences – and filmmaking eras, because there’s a ’90s vibe to all this too – feels refreshing, occasionally even exhilarating, especially with the killer electronic score kicks into gear (Nat King Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’ gets a few plays too). Amirpour always gives us something to look at, too: the colours pop; some streets teem with people, others are eerily deserted. Dangers lurk. Through the lens of Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, New Orleans is a goldfish bowl filled with lost souls on one final bender.
Amirpour’s career to date offers a triptych of stories of women navigating men’s worlds, and needing all their nous and resources to survive in them – and this is her most straight-up enjoyable survivor tale yet. It’s a feminist parable that may not linger as long as in the mind as her more provocative debut, but it’s irresistible fun in the moment.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon premiered at the Venice International Film Festival.