Woman in the Dunes (1964) dir Hiroshi Teshigahara
Starring: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida
“Woman in the Dunes” is the third film from Japanese provocateur Hiroshi Teshigahara. It’s an indefinable film for genre. It’s both a thriller, and meditative art film. Polanksi's "Knife in the Water" meets Antononioni's "L'Avventura". The film has the distinction of receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination – then a rare feat for a foreign language film. It’s a captivating two-hander about a man who is imprisoned in a sand dune with a woman with no means of escape.
The film begins with Niki Jumpei, an entomologist catching bugs in the desert. He misses his bus home, and he asks a group of labourers for a place to stay for the night. Niki is brought to a one shack home located a deep sandpit in the desert. A kind young lady is the housekeeper and she is polite and accommodating. But in the morning when it’s time to leave, Niki can’t escape, the ladder which brought him down is gone. The men are gone as well, and the inclined slopes of sand which surround him are impossible to climb. The woman reveals that she and, therefore, him are victims of an act of criminal torture and blackmail to sift and extricate sand from the pit to the labourers that kidnapped them in exchange for food and water and thus, their lives.
Niki has trouble believing such a ridiculous notion. A battle of attrition ensues between Niki and his captors. And as the days go by he realizes the gravity of his situation and accepts his dilemma. As the weeks and months go by, Niki starts looking at the woman differently. He gazes at her naked sleeping body and unexpectedly, a carnal attraction is born. Not out of love, but mutual desperation.
The film masterfully uses symbolism to convey the ideas of fate and destiny. In the opening scenes Teshigahara teases us with metaphorical close-ups of the bugs. Niki captures them, and pins them to his miniature diorama of cardboard and sand. Later when Niki is imprisoned in the dunes we realize the sad significance and irony of his predicament. Niki, himself, is imprisoned, exactly like his bugs, on display to his captors.
"Woman in the Dunes" is a modern parable of the Greek story of Sisyphus, the prisoner who was tasked with rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to have it continually roll down to the bottom. Or maybe it’s the guinea pig cage metaphor, which the animal runs and runs on the spinning wheel without going anywhere. Niki's task is a similar unconquerable act of frustration.
As much as the film is brilliant, its often a frustrating venture for the audience. Structurally “Woman in the Dunes” has its faults. At the 1hr 40mins mark, the film appears to rise to its climax, when Niki escapes his prison via a handmade rope. It's a masterful sequence of method and procedure. Niki escapes and after a lengthy chase he's caught again and lowered back down into the pit. At almost the 2-hour length it seemed like the natural point to end the film, but in fact, the film continues on for another 45mins which arguably is less intriguing than the beginning.
Teshigahara also leaves many essential plot elements unclear. In the myth, it was Zeus’ punishment for Sisyphus’ betrayal of him. What did Niki do to deserve such maddening servitude? Who are the villagers and why do they need the sand, when itseems so abundant around them? Do they torture Niki and the woman because they are sadistic? And who exactly is the woman in the dunes? Is she there voluntarily? I didn't require these questions answered to enjoy the film, but they were continually in my mind.
"Woman in the Dunes" is a film of texture, subtext, metaphors. Because of the parallel with Sisyphus, it should be viewed more as a fable – like Grimm Fairy tales - than a structurally coherent genre film. It’s visual storytelling at its best. Teshigahara’s images construct the conundrum with a multitude of closeups of moving sand, naked body parts and intercutting of all these elements creates a uniquely erotic and frightful experience. Enjoy.