Woman in the Dunes was promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies of All Time. Read the Certified Weird entry.
Reader Recommendation by Fredrik Allenmark
DIRECTED BY: Hiroshi Teshigahara
FEATURING: Eiji Okada, Kyôko Kishida
PLOT: An entomologist ends up trapped together with a woman in a house at the bottom of a sand pit in the desert, where they are forced to spend their nights shoveling sand.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Freud introduced the concept of the uncanny (“Unheimlich” in German) for the particular, often uncomfortable, kind of weirdness that results when something is, at the same time, both familiar and foreign. With Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara has mastered the art of the uncanny. The plot revolves, to a fair extent, around familiar everyday activities, except that this occurs in a surreal world where the sand is everywhere and involved in everything: it is a prison, an all-consuming monstrosity, a source of Sisyphean labor and even the subject of philosophical discussions. The omnipresence of the sand turns even the most mundane of activities into something unsettlingly alien.
COMMENTS: If I told you that there is a film about sand which is frightening, philosophical, erotic, disturbing, tedious and beautiful, would you believe me? Such a film does indeed exist: it is called “Woman in the Dunes.” When the first shot in a film is an extreme close up of a grain of sand, you know that you are going to be watching something different. What makes it different, you ask? The fact that it meets the description I gave in the first sentence in this paragraph. In fact it is not just different; it is one of those movies that, despite being about 50 years old, is still completely unique.
For what is ultimately a very complex film, the plot is easy to summarize. An amateur entomologist is spending his vacation in the desert searching for specimens of insects that live in the sand. When he misses the last bus back home, one of the locals offers him a place to stay for the night: a house located at the bottom of a pit in the sand, occupied by a young woman who is living alone. It turns out, however, that the offer was a plan to trap the man in the pit, forcing him to remain as the woman’s companion, keeping her company and helping her with her nightly work, which consists of shoveling sand to keep it from filling the pit and burying the house. This is the situation the man now finds himself in: his life becomes a constant struggle against the sand. He is forced to engage in Sisyphean labor, spending his nights shoveling sand that is to be removed from the pit only to see it replaced with more sand making its way down the sides of the pit during the day. The woman has accepted this situation, but the man refuses to do so, repeatedly attempting to escape.
The different attitudes to the situation held by the man and the woman results in repeated discussions about what the man views as the complete unacceptability of their situation. Such a life, completely devoid of meaning, is not appropriate for a human being he holds, while the woman keeps calmly responding that you get used to it. The sand has a significant role to play in the often philosophical discussions. For example, apart from being their captor, we learn that the sand is also an almost unstoppable destructive force. Stories illustrating the destructive powers of the sand serve to remind the viewer that nothing lasts forever. The use of visual metaphors further support the philosophical, often existentialist, points made in the discussions: e.g. sand rolling down the hill, preventing the man from climbing up and escaping, may serve to remind us of the inescapable nature of the passage of time. Clever use of unusual film techniques, such as extreme close ups, make ordinary things look unfamiliar, contributing to the unsettling nature of the film while at the same time encouraging the metaphorical interpretation of some shots. The successful use of visual metaphors is Teshigahara’s solution to the problem of creating a film based on a book that relies heavily on metaphorical use of written language, and which may at first glance appear unfilmable.
The film is not just philosophical. The desperate situation the man finds himself in creates a sense of psychological horror throughout the movie and there are a few genuinely frightening scenes, including one scene that I almost found myself unable to watch to the end. There is also an erotic aspect to the story. Apparently, when you live in an environment where the sand is everywhere it is necessary to sleep in the nude to avoid getting sand in your underwear and it is also helpful to have someone who helps you wash the sand of your body. Consequently, the sand, as if it is acting as an agent of fate, has an important role to play in initiating and maintaining a sexual relationship between the man and the woman. There is a dissonance between the sexual feelings between the two and the distrust that remains between them as the man remains the prisoner trying to escape and the woman fears that he will succeed, leaving her completely alone. This further contributes to the unsettling nature of the film.
Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the movie is the familiar yet alien nature of the setting and many of the events that occur. For example, much of the film takes place inside a house which is normal except that the floor is covered in sand and there is more sand seeping in through the ceiling. This is how the film, with its minimalist setting, can be so surrealistic, unsettling and just plain weird. To sum everything up, this is a unique, genre defying film which is cerebral, unsettling, haunting, erotic, surreal and just plain good. Highly recommended, and a must watch for weirdophiles with an interest in existentialist philosophy.