With a particular attraction toward Japanese film, am trying to lessen the number of important works that I haven’t seen. One that can now be crossed of the list (in terms of a first viewing) is Woman in the Dunes, by Hiroshi Teshigahara. The film is image-driven and becomes exceedingly tedious, even maddening, to watch.It has been called a postmodern example of the “missing-man” movie. Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which came a couple years before, featured the apparent protagonist going missing early in the film. Antonioni’s camera wanders as much as his emerging protagonists as there is never an indication of where Anna went. Woman in the Dunes reverses the perspective, with the camera trained on the missing man rather than on any attempt to discover his whereabouts. Perhaps it would be better to say that the camera accompanies the missing man, as it is rather more trained (along with the man’s gaze) on the young widow with whom he resides. The man reads a bulletin late in the film reporting that he, along with a host of others, have been identified as missing and unaccounted for. This confirms what the viewer already expects: that his disappearance was noticed, but the mystery left unsolved.
The sand has been heavily commented upon. It has an organic quality to it, constantly shifting, sinking into the pit where the two live. The woman in particular speaks of the sand in anthropomorphic terms, “swallowing” people up. It is also a substitute for water, both in the woman’s speech and her actions. She speaks of getting a couple inches overnight while washing dishes in the sand.
Close-ups are the dominant mode of camera use in the film. Often the shots begin from such a zoomed-in perspective that it is unclear what fills the frame. Teshigahara emphasizes the texture of these close-ups, usually consisting of sand alone, sand on skin, or water on skin. Without the option for a panoramic view, one must move in for detail. The result is a combination of realizing the beauty of detail and resulting insanity at having only detail to appreciate. With detail alone comes a loss of perspective, otherwise known as obsession. The man’s initial unwillingness to acquiesce to his entrapment in the pit fades away as he acknowledges his lack of choice in the matter.
What results is a very interesting fusion of eros, agape, hatred, and resentment. Though the woman is held captive as much as he is, she came to terms with her situation long ago and now has no desire to leave. Further, she probably could not do much to liberate him even if she wanted to. Still, with no one else to interact with, the man allows himself to become seduced by her. The seduction has a magnetic hold on him, such that once he has the opportunity to leave, he returns to the pit. His need is less for her than for what she has to offer. By limiting his life to the hut in the pit, every pleasure can be a sublime pleasure; ignorance of the outside world becomes bliss.
Notes: Opening credits with subway city sounds in background – a suggestion of the life he comes from. Passport stamps and fingerprints – allusions to missing while traveling. 1st shots from close-up -> slowly cut out to sand. Nightmarish, chilling string music. All initial shots of him from behind as he hikes through desert, then front, then side, then pause for facial close-up at ocean. Hand-held walking camera. At first dinner together, they discuss destructive nature of sand – it rots wood, while he says it’s fundamentally dry and couldn’t rot anything. Wandering, non-deliberate camera – qualitative-style camera work consistent with man’s style of research. Body contours identified with contours of sand. Shadow & light. He objectifies her while she sleeps, but she allows and even invites it. Silence. As he realizes he’s trapped, landslide (sandslide?). Hitchcock/horror premise. Music is Psycho-esque. Highly aesthetic, avant-garde, surrealistic. Numerous camera shots through wood planks while they sleep. “My blood is going to rot” b/c of sand, he says. “If it weren’t for the sand, no one would bother with me,” she says. Very few full-body shots; one while he photographs her, which she resists. Extremely textural scene while she bathes him: sounds, close-ups, soap, water, skin, b&w contrast, silence, breathing, cuts to windy dunes. Point-of-view shot as he emerges from pit. Maddening. Burns his insect collection. Villagers demand exhibitionism in order to “let him out,” but she refuses. He says, “We’re pigs, anyway.”