Woman in the Dunes (Day 68)

woman in the dunes (poster)My Opinion: 7.6 || Unique film tha’s a kind of horror parable – no blood or chills, just growing existential dread. The story is subtly surreal, but it’s filmed with a deep-focus naturalism that conveys an atmosphere of increasing suffocation.

TITLE: Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna)
DIRECTOR: Hiroshi Teshigahara | Screenplay: Kôbô Abe
LANGUAGE: Japanese | COUNTRY: Japan
YEAR: 1964
PROFILE: Drama | 123 minutes | IMDb (8.4)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): An amateur entomologist searching for insects by the sea is trapped by local villagers into living with a mysterious woman who spends almost all her time preventing her home from being swallowed up by advancing sand dunes. The woman and the trapped man begin a strange and erotic relationship that stretches over years, as the man’s hope for escape dims.

Strengths: There’s no missing the metaphorical dimensions of being trapped in a forever-collapsing pit of sand. The script by Kôbô Abe (from his own novel) evokes Kafka and Camus, and director Hiroshi Teshigahara intensifies the philosophical dimensions with feverishly absorbing camera work.

There are beautiful images throughout, and never has sand been better exploited as an object of torment and menace. Our protagonist is waging an unwinnable fight to dig out from the sand that’s forever collecting around (and on) him. To Teshigahara’s credit, however, the symbolism never collects as heavily. He presents the philosophical aspects of the story without making it a sterile philosophical exercise — the characters are fully rounded, and their plight resonates emotionally.

Woman in the Dunes

Weaknesses: Although the story works at the level of character and emotion, we often sense that it exists primarily as a platform for philosophical probing. That’s especially true once we realize that the rationale behind the characters’ captivity makes very little sense.

Supposedly, the village is forcing our protagonists to remain in the pit so that they can “harvest” sand that the villagers then sell. But the captors need to help them every step of the way, laboriously winching sand-filled containers out of the pit. Now consider that there are mountains of sand easily accessible above and around the pit. Seems there might be a simpler method, no? Essentially, the protagonists aren’t trapped in a pit — they’re trapped in the filmmaker’s fascinating but somewhat illogical story idea.

Finally, the movie is frequently described as “erotic,” but I’m not sold on that aspect. The characters’ couplings are more lonely and resigned than intense, and the eventual turn toward coercion undercuts any erotic notes that might have existed.

Woman in the DunesComparisons: The only movie that comes to mind as a match for this one in tone, filmmaking quality, and philosophical seriousness is Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial. Like so many of Welles’s movies, it’s terribly underappreciated (and I think better than this, but I need to re-watch it).

File Under: captivity, escape, survival, philosophy, metaphor, Kafka, sand, existential horror