Monday, May 18, 2009

The Great Movies: "Woman in the Dunes"

Woman in the Dunes
Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964

I had no idea what to expect from this 1962 Japanese art film. The DVD cover said “Suspenseful! Erotic! Unforgettable!”, but all hard-to-market foreign films have that or something very like it on their covers. What I certainly did not expect was an absurdist existential parable with a Stephen King plot, an elegant horror movie in which the characters must fight for their lives against the terrifying, relentless, nearly malevolent force of…. sand. Yes. Sand.

Plot: It’s a common horror plot – a stranger stops for the night in a village that seems friendly at first, but soon discovers that it has a dark secret. In this case, the secret is that all of the houses are at the bottom of inescapable pits of sand, and that all of the inhabitants are forced to dig eternally if they are to survive.

Visuals: Freaking fantastic. The photography of the sand, in its shifting dunes, as individual grains, and as grit stuck to human bodies, is fabulous, bringing the force of nature to life as the third character in this highly claustrophobic drama. The main set, the house half-buried in its sand pit, is a lovely piece of surrealism. The whole setting is literally absurd – it is physically impossible for sand to settle at an angle that can’t be climbed. But then anyone watching this movie for its existentialist message would understand that all of the “sand pits” in which we make our “homes” are “absurd.” Dude.

Dialog: In Japanese, and not a lot of it either. This is the kind of art movie with long soundless stretches. There is also a lot of often abrasive soundtrack music, much of it percussive or imitative of the constant howling winds that sandblast the strange village.

Prognosis: Personally, I thought Woman in the Dunes was terrific. To be sure, this would not be a great movie for those evenings when you want to be swept away by some mindless diversion. This is more for those nights when you want some thinkin’ with your filmed entertainment.


Elaine said...

OMG! I realized --once I reached your "Visuals" segment-- that I saw this movie! Probably at one of Univ of Cincinnati's $2 Saturday movie nights.
Are only dark thoughts "thinkin'?" because ultimately, all I could think about was the hardness of my folding chair.
For me-- a "must miss" that I saw.

(I've not been able to sit through "A Prairie Home Companion"--fell asleep on it three times. Maybe if I get a folding chair...)

DrSchnell said...

Haven't seen it - but I'll try to find it, or maybe catch it next time the K-town videoplex has a foreign film festival. The book was really good though.

blythe said...

the music in this one is what does it for me.

the book's good too.