The Criterion Collection Review | Woman in the Dunes

No film I can immediately recall seems to rely so heavily on visual texture than Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 masterpiece Woman in the Dunes. The film takes place almost entirely within a small shanty house at the bottom of a sandy pit, with sand constantly pouring in through cracks in the ceiling. The floor is coated in sand. Everything is coated in sand. There is a notable scene wherein the film’s male lead (Eiji Okada) awakens in the morning next to the film’s female lead (Kyoko Kishida), and her prone, nude body is coated, head-to-toe, in a glittering sandy patina of near-living minerals. The sand almost seems to represent a living embodiment of the sparkling grain of 35mm film. Woman in the Dunes will be released on a Criterion Blu-ray on August 23rd, and having the new level of digital detail available to us only makes the film richer and more vibrant than ever.

But Woman in the Dunes is much more than a sumptuous visual experience. It is also a supremely unnerving fable of deterioration and purgatorial breakdown. The film is about a nature photographer who has traveled to a remote portion of the desert to photograph insects. While lost in a reverie over a woman (his ex?), he misses the last bus back to civilization. He is offered a place to stay by the nomadic locals in the form of a pit-bound house. A woman lives there, and speaks in a mysterious patois that seems almost supernatural in its obfuscation. The music (by Toru Takemitsu) shrieks in horror. The next morning, while the woman sleeps, the man tries to climb out of the pit. He finds that the rope ladder is gone, and that he cannot climb the sandy walls. He is trapped.

Toho

Toho

The man remains trapped for many days. Weeks. Months? Years? The woman digs sand, and explains that she sells it to the makers of building materials. Although she also explains that her sand is substandard for buildings because it’s too salty. Although she seems baffled and distant most of the time, she comes to sexually insinuate herself into the man’s mind, and there are many sex scenes between the two of them. The granular ogling of their flesh is stirring, arousing, and visceral. Few films are as good about evoking the tactile experience of touching flesh.

The off-kilter mythology immediately evokes Sisyphus, of course (a comparison once made by Roger Ebert); there is a low-dropping cloud of futility that hangs threateningly over the man and the woman. She has elected to roll with her fate of constantly digging herself out of what is essentially her own grave (indeed, her old family remains buried somewhere out there, nearby, in the desert), making “her rock her thing,” as it were. The man, meanwhile, has chosen to rail against his own fate, trying – always trying – to escape somehow. Cue an extended intellectual discussion about the maddening absurdity of life.

Toho

Toho

Woman in the Dunes feels markedly Japanese in its circular language, faraway mythological underpinnings, and dark meditative qualities. It feels like a lost Zen koan. But one could also be forgiven for thinking it was based on a lost story by Kafka. People are trapped in their own systems, in their own thoughts, and deep within their own appetites. Either way, Woman in the Dunes is a terrifying intellectual maze, even while its characters remain frustratingly ensconced.

Woman in the Dunes was nominated for several Academy Awards back in 1964, including Best Director. It was then promptly forgotten about for many years. This happens to great films sometimes. They are lauded endlessly, they receive critical acclaim and many other accolades, and then seem to slip into unavailability for a long time. Indeed, until The Criterion Collection released a 2007 DVD of the film (as part of a Teshigahara box set), finding it at all was a bit of a chore. Now, thanks to the new Blu-ray, a classic remains alive, now coated in the sharpest and cleanest image it has ever possessed.

Top Image: Toho

Witney Seibold is a lontime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.