by TOM NIXON
Sporting an existential prison before which even A Man Escaped and Last Year At Marienbad must bow, with Sisyphus re-imagined as dung beetle and all the more loaded with metaphorical weight, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes also dwells on the borders of territory Lynch and Cronenberg would later pillage in its uneasy, wormlike familiarity. Maddeningly gorgeous, it might as well be shot on Mars for the way its sands ebb and flow with endless, aimless mutability; a ghostly demonstration that sometimes the greatest metaphors are the simplest.
Opening with a microscopic close-up of sand grains resembling diverse minerals, only to cut out and out as Penderecki-style strings rage above like a howling wind, the film at once conveys the smallness of its contents, the wild indifference of the void. Our first look at the protagonist sees him climbing a dune in search of insects, trapping them in pots, poking them about in the sand as they scuttle along their meaningless paths. This ironically foreshadows what’s to come for the protagonist, and as we will come to understand, reflects what has always been.
Men from a nearby village invite him to stay in one of their homes after he misses the last bus away from the desert. Their squinty expressions and carefully chosen words speak of hidden, malicious intentions. The humble abode chosen for his stay hides away in a claustrophobic sandpit accessible only by rope ladder. A widowed woman lives there, alone, and her expression as he first enters is some mixture of awe, glee and trepidation. As he climbs down the ladder they tell him “don’t look up, you’ll get sand in your face” – like many lines in the film this has a double meaning.
The woman in the dunes is a tremendous character, implying everything from vulnerability and loneliness to lust and deceit with odd, subtle gestures, unnatural in a way that paradoxically feels archetypal. She spends much of her time shoveling away sand which flows down into the pit from above in intermittent avalanches. We soon discover she must do this in order to avoid being swallowed up and, furthermore, to prevent the entire village from the same. The teacher laughs at her quaint and futile ways, but he’s horrified the next morning as he realizes he has walked into a trap; the rope ladder has been removed, and he is expected to help remove the sand, indefinitely. The moment of realization leads straight into an avalanche, a scene of unwavering intensity. His first action after a pathetic escape attempt is to imprison the woman in turn, then glutton down some food and grin manically at his own cleverness – but he soon discovers that helping her shift the sand is his only means to survival.
A penetrating microcosm of everyday life, the film highlights acutely the purposeless routines which serve as God for an otherwise chaotic, fleeting existence; the shoveling of the sand and the couple’s developing union (including one of the most erotic, haunting love scenes ever put to celluloid as the sand flows into the pit like semen) are a ritual dance which contains no meaning outside its own trivial struggles to satisfy animal desires. Early on the protagonist meticulously cleans sand from between his toes, even though more sand will inevitably come and replace it. There’s no essential difference between life on the inside and life on the outside, and this is confirmed when the protagonist hunts and captures the insect he was looking for originally – he’d be doing nothing different in his previous, larger scale prison.
His claim that “even a monkey could do this work,” his refusal to “die like a dog,” illustrates his arrogance in the face of perceived primitiveness, his elevated opinion of himself – in fact, we all work like monkeys and die like dogs. He’s an example of mankind’s conceit, brought down to earth by a realization that we’re all just bugs thrashing about in the dust. The townspeople highlight this in mockery as he questions the doctor’s medical authority, claiming with amusement that he understands the ins and outs of pregnancy because “he used to shoe horses for a veterinarian.” Indeed, by accepting and facing their plight head on the woman and her people seem more fulfilled than his wandering self (who went to the desert to “get away” from the bustle of Tokyo, with the grand aim in mind of getting his name into a research book) has ever been; he starts to implicitly question whether the outside is really the better world he believes it to be, especially as when the woman is lifted from her pit she wails as though ascending to hell.
A work of blazing intensity as well as bewildering strangeness, the film burns with the emotion and exhaustion of the protagonist’s imprisonment so that any kind of payoff is breathlessly relieving and hard-earned. In a film full of astonishing scenes, the best sequences are the two most developed escape attempts; one a futile flight across the desert, the dogs prowling, the vast open wastes, threat hanging in the air, sound and image melting into a racing pulse, heart in mouth, searing hope and bitter futility felt on a purely physical level; the other a deliciously reluctant ascent dogged by a realization that even bounded in a nutshell he can count himself a king of infinite space; ‘there’s no need to rush away just yet.’ It’s the difference between the modern man’s “I’ve got a job, I can’t waste time,” “it’s a pain not having electricity, huh?” and an eventual understanding of the arbitrariness of such things, of the fact that he’ll settle into his new world just fine once his righteous sense of outrage and loss has diminished. The spirit of the viewer is barely distinguishable from the protagonist’s own, as you’re forced by Teshigahara’s mastery to share in this transformation of attitude.
Shorter with every viewing but no less mesmerizing, no less true in the gut, Woman in the Dunes also never fails to enthrall on a basic level, oozing with mood and relatable character development as well as allegorical import. Both the leads are magnificent but the sand is the star, and the portrayal of its gradual transition, from a faceless arch-villain toying nightmarishly with its human captors to a water-giving object of fascination, has no peer in film. The contrived scenario is made into a self-sustaining organic whole by the meticulous images, every one a wall-hanger, possessed of a microscopic swirling beauty which haunts long after the film’s conclusion. The ending, a missing person’s report where the protagonist’s name is revealed for the first time, shows that he got his name in a book after all.