Woman in the Dunes
- Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)
A school teacher treks through a remote desert in Japan looking for insects and misses the last bus back to town. He only has three days off so is grateful to the villager who offers accommodation for the night. ‘More time to look for insects tomorrow’ he exclaims. His accommodation is in a giant pit and he must descend a rope ladder to get down. The walls of the pit are made entirely of sand, and if this is starting to sound dodgy, you’re onto something.
A young woman who appears to live or work in the pit prepares his meal and he’s off to sleep. The next morning the rope is gone and the man slowly learns that he is a prisoner. And the woman is stuck there too.
The simplicity of this construct is deceiving: the film defies description. I had always seen only that one shot – the carnal embrace, and thought this a fish-out-of-water romance – and it is, but it’s also a thriller, a claustrophobic horror film and it’s bold and brash and acutely zeroed in on the human condition.
We watch the man try to escape the vast pit and the sand collapses underneath him time and again. The woman we sense gave up trying a long time ago as she dutifully shovels sand every day.
The absurdity of this situation is established early, along with the physical limitations, so we can forget it and watch the relationship evolve through opposition, desperation, lust and understanding. Mundane domesticity surrenders to intense eroticism as two people, both proud and naïve in their own ways, find comfort in each other.
When he asks her ‘do you shovel sand to live, or do you live to shovel sand?’ it feels like he is asking us as well and while he cannot accept her overt submission he does develop empathy and perspective. And while she yearns for companionship, she is aware of their incompatibility and takes solace in warm exchanges and acts of decency. This film, likes its primal characters, is feeling all the time, and I loved it.
Straight into my Top 100.