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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Twenty-Five: Woman in the Dunes

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

Directed by Japan’s Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes is another lesser-known movie whose existence was unfamiliar to me. The complicated film did receive Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film in 1965 and Best Director in 1966. It also won the Special Jury Prize from the Cannes Film Festival and earned a Palme D’or nomination. Teshigahara is known for his avant-garde films, particularly this picture and 1972’s Summer Soldiers about American Vietnam deserters in Japan. However, his 11 films remain virtually unknown to most viewers beyond professors or other experts. Only two films are available on Netflix, and the Internet Movie Database includes few user ratings. Is this absence of his work an unfair crime, or do Teshigahara’s films deserve their lack of recognition?

Eiji Okada (Hiroshima mon amour) stars as an entomologist searching for insects amid the barren desert area of Japan. Requiring a place to sleep, he contacts local villagers and is directed to stay with a strange woman (Kyôko Kishida) living at the bottom of a sand pit. She treats him well and cooks a meal, but seems to have the mistaken impression he’ll be staying for a while. On the next morning, the man is shocked to realize that he has been trapped, and no escape is possible. The rope ladder to the surface is gone, and the villagers are all complicit in keeping him around. He attempts to climb up the steep incline, but this is no ordinary pit, and the constantly shifting sand is too volatile to allow his escape. The woman is an odd figure and is actually subservient to him, but her goals for keeping him around are very clear. Without a strong man to do the labor, the village’s ultimate fate may be sealed.

This story differs typically from a conventional thriller while including many of its conventions. We do see the captive biding his time, preparing his escape, and making the attempt. There’s also the growing connection between the man and the woman, which continues to build, culminating in an explosive and surprising moment. After months away from his home, the man (and the audience) begins to wonder if his life in the pit is really worse than the outside world. However, his acceptance could be a ruse to assist with his escape. Nothing is clear from his behavior, which shifts from tenderness to utter disdain for the woman. While the natural world shifts violently outside, his resolve constantly shifts and leaves us questioning everything. The man’s obsession with the woman continues to grow, but we’re unsure if his caring feelings are genuine. Adding to the confusion is the extremely dark lighting, which makes certain scenes difficult to even comprehend.

Roger Ebert calls Woman in the Dunes a “modern version of the myth of Sisyphus,” and this phrase accurately describes the man’s situation. Living in the pit, he must work diligently to keep them alive, and then begin the whole thing again. Several elements raise this story above simply being an odd little creation. Teshigahara and Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa film gorgeous sand scenes that differ from anything seen before (or since) on screen. The black-and-white images are able to depict both the beauty and the ferocity of nature at the same time. The other memorable aspect is Tôru Takemitsu’s unconventional score, which helps to create the extremely chilling tone. Its sharp, eerie notes rarely match other pictures and deliver a haunting experience. Woman in the Dunes might not inspire repeating viewings, but it does provide an original experience with few predictable moments. This distinctive atmosphere warrants the Great Movie label, which recognizes films that eclipse the basic components of a specific genre.

{Editor's note: In July 2007, Criterion Collection is releasing the box set Three Films By Hiroshi Teshigahara, including Woman in the Dunes, Pitfall and The Face of Another.}

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