Woman in the Dunes

Last night I watched one of the most original films ever made. No one's ever come close to the bug-eyed weirdness of this film (plot, feel, and all). It was Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes and it was truly excellent. It was made in 1964, it's not quite drama, not quite sci-fi, not quite psychological horror, but there are elements of the lot to be found. It follows an entomologist who's lured into spending the night in an isolated desert village. He's led to a rope ladder leading to a house deep in a pit surrounded by sand. The inhabitant is a single, strange looking woman who goes out at night to dig the sand, put it in buckets, and then put it in a net for the men at the top of the pit to collect. He realizes pretty quickly he's not getting out unless he escapes and spends the next three months alternately making himself comfortable and trying to get out. The sand that surrounds them is as much a character as anything else (so for that matter is Toru Takemitsu's pre-Exorcist violin scraping. This might be my favorite horror/sci-fi score of all time). It pervades their lives, their sleeping, eating, drinking, sex, livelihood, hobbies, everything. The sand is their reason for living and will be the death of them before anything else. The entomologist is also curiously in thrall to the woman he shares the house with. His feelings toward her are constantly shifting as time passes and his ambitions change. She is the bane of his existence and the siren song that pulls him in. Her sexuality is clearly an issue, but it's approached from a completely different angle. It is her sexuality that probably frightens him the most; he knows he isn't strong enough to combat his feelings about her. Films don't appear to be this emotionally complex anymore, for whatever reason, but I sincerely wish we'd try again.

It's almost a lot of things: noir, sci-fi, romance, horror, dystopia. The cinematography explores every rough texture, finding smoothness so rarely that it becomes precious when we or the entomologist stumble upon it. Human skin has never been so nuanced - never as perfect as it could be, yet paradoxically never more beautiful. Teshigahara made films like André De Toth, but with the despair writ large, rather than waiting in the wings or seeped into the faces of his characters. By contrast, all of Teshigahara's heroes are flummoxed to the point of exasperation. They don't know how to play it cool. They scream and bark and try like hell to beat a system that's gamed them from the outset. Fate is three steps ahead and they can do nothing about it except slowly get used to the idea. Even if it means kissing freedom goodbye.

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