A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, May 13, 2016

Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Woman in the Dunes is an absurdist thriller: An entomologist (Eiji Okada, gathering specimens in the sand dunes along the seashore, misses his bus and asks the locals for shelter for the night. He is lodged with a widow (Kyoko Kishida) who lives alone in a shack at the bottom of a pit, but in the morning discovers that he is trapped, unable to climb from the pit, and forced to stay with her and shovel sand that the villagers collect during the day and exchange for provisions. As the days pass, he tries various ways to escape, but in the end, even though he is given the means to leave, he accepts his lot and remains. Introducing the film on TCM, Ben Mankiewicz made much of the fact that since its release, there have been many efforts to determine what the film "means," as if the whole compelling drama were simply a vehicle for some sort of message. But to borrow from Archibald MacLeish's oxymoronic poem "Ars Poetica," a movie, like a poem, "should not mean / But be." Teshigahara's film is what it is: a compelling story overlaid with eroticism that, only because of the strangeness and even improbability of its setting, suggests more than it states. It works largely because of the performances of Okada and Kishida, who give their characters a compelling tension, an oscillation between tenderness and violence. The key scene takes place when, after having settled into the routine of their life together, the man pleads with the villagers to let him leave the pit for an hour each day, just to look at the sea. The villagers agree, but with a terrible condition: Wearing hideous masks, they gather at the edge of the pit to watch the man and the woman copulate. In his desperation, the man pleads with the woman to comply, and when she refuses he attempts to rape her. Teshigahara's direction, Hiroshi Segawa's cinematography, and Toru Takemitsu's music add to the horror of the scene, just as they make the entire film extraordinarily memorable, if not some kind of statement about the human condition. Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay, based on his 1962 novel.

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