Favorite Forgotten Films

Woman in the Dunes Review
By: Chris Chang — April 13, 1997

Imagine taking the "Help! I've fallen down and I can't get up!" concept and turning it into a Japanese New Wave masterpiece. Do that, and you get Woman in the Dunes, which stars Eiji Okada as a school teacher on an amateur bug-collecting holiday gone awry. (Okada is best known as the male lead in Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1959, but has also appeared opposite Mothra, Godzilla, and Marlon Brando.)

Scale, for director Hiroshi Teshigahara, is everything. In the beginning, we see Okada traipse along a landscape of shifting and shimmering sand dunes. The immensity of the natural environment dwarfs Okada as much as he dwarfs the insects scrambling to escape from his specimen jar. He's had a productive day and stretches out on the sand to daydream. A small group of locals materialize; they tell him he's missed the last bus. He's nonchalant. "I'm in no hurry," he says. A severely weathered face stares back at him and laughs a severely ironic laugh. For anyone who knows the film, it's a laugh that cuts to the bone.

Okada is invited into the ultimate cinematic No Exit. The villagers lead him to a woman whose house is partially engulfed at the bottom of a sandpit. He has to clamber down a rope ladder to get to it. Upon his arrival, the woman immediately goes into domestic-servility overdrive. In the morning, the rope ladder is gone and the gravity of the situation tightens its grip. He panics, but quickly learns that the harder he tries to climb, the bigger the sandslide that flows on top of him.

He resigns himself to the rhythm: Every night, in exchange for meager rations, the couple has to fill containers for the village's industrial sand-supply operation. The digging has an additional function: "If we stop shoveling, the house will be buried." Later on, as he gets deeper into the existential spirit of things he asks, "Doesn't it fill you with emptiness? Are we shoveling to survive or surviving to shovel?" Sound familiar? Teshigahara has stated, "Like society, it is ever shifting and continuously moving. It does not rest a moment. It is relentless." Time to make the donuts.

Struck from an original camera negative, the new 35mm print is exquisite. Woman in the Dunes is one of the most powerful examples of black-and-white filmmaking gone completely tactile. Beginning with an extreme macro close-up of a single grain of sand, and then more grains, and then a visual sea of sand, the imagery continuously teases the eye with sharp, graphic, startling texture. Sand on human bodies forms landscapes of emotional power: everything from dead-end dread to all-consuming passion is embedded in a granular world. Form and content merge as an absolutely absurd situation displays a spectral array of the simplest human conditions: work/play/rest, or food/dreams/sex, whatever. It's all in there.

Adding to the film's overall palpability is the musical score by Toru Takemitsu, a composer who can easily hold his own amid names like Herrmann or Rota or Morricone. Working with sonic sensations of virtual weight or dizzying lightheadedness, his abstract juxtapositions of sound counterpoint and catapult image and editing to a higher level.

Imagine what it feels like to be caught in a gigantic hourglass as the floor beneath your feet slowly ebbs away into nothingness. Woman in the Dunes asks you to imagine what it would be like to not feel this way. Once you have seen it, and once you have sampled the grit, the sensation is inescapable.

This review comes from http://cinemania.msn.com/Movie?MovieID=19500
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