No matter how well-schooled you are in film, there are bound to be areas that for one reason or another have been somehow overlooked. It’s ironic that the great director Josef von Sternberg once claimed that when he retired he was going to take up Chinese philately because he wanted a subject he could not exhaust. These many years later, film itself has become an inexhaustible subject itself. Put simply, you can’t see everything. In my case, Hiroshi Teshigara’s 1964 classic Woman in the Dunes is one of those films I’d just never encountered—an omission corrected last night. I wish I’d seen this remarkable work earlier, but better late than not at all. Many “art” films of this era do not hold up all that well today: They no longer look fresh and feel almost like parodies of art films. This one, however, does. It’s a very strange movie that both exists and can be read on several levels.
The basic setup isn’t far removed from a horror film with its hapless entomologist (Eiji Okada, Hiroshima, Mon Amour) missing his train, being offered shelter for the night, and then finding himself a prisoner of the locals. He’s lowered into a pit to serve as the helpmate and husband of a nameless woman (Kyôko Kishida, Bushido). Once the rope ladder is hauled up, he’s trapped there, forced to live in her very rudimentary ramshackle house, reliant on outsiders to bring provisions (including water), and pressed into helping her shovel sand into buckets in order to prevent the house from being buried. (The sand is later illegally sold to builders, who don’t care that it’s dangerously salty, so long as it’s cheap.) That really is all the story there is. It’s almost like a reversed gender version of The Collector (1965), but the film is more than its story. The film is about the instability of all things, the passing nature of life and work and even identity. It examines the ways in which who we are and what we become are very much circumstantial.
By turns the film is horrific (not just the setup, but a later sequence where the populace try to get the couple to put on a sex show for them), poetic, romantic and even political. A good case can be made for the film as a depiction of exploited workers who are so bamboozled by the powers that be that they consider themselves lucky to get what they do, but that’s only one aspect of the movie. As much as that, it’s a film about textures. Woman in the Dunes is perhaps the most tactile movie ever made: the shifting sand, the bodies of the man and the woman (often viewed in abstract bits and pieces), a drop of water etc. There’s an astonishing sense of actually being able to feel all this that is unique to the film. If any piece of art-house cinema can be called an essential, this mesmerizing, haunting work can.