Woman Of The Dunes is a bizarre yet compelling mid-60s thriller from the late Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara. Echoing the menacing absurdity of Roman Polanski's Knife In The Water and Cul-De-Sac, the film is set in a remote desert region of Japan, where a visiting entymologist (Eiji Okada) finds himself stranded at the bottom of a giant sandpit. There he must assist a young widow (Kyoko Kishida) in shovelling away the sand that every day threatens to engulf her primitive home.
Working in tandem with his regular collaborators writer Kôbô Abe and composer Tôru Takemitsu, who contributed the threatening score, Teshigahara imbues this fable with a nightmarish quality. An educated, 'civilised' person is removed from his familiar surroundings, and without explanation is confined to a enclosed space. Cut off from the wider world, he must carry out endlessly repetitive and demanding physical labour. As he asks of his new companion: "Are you living to clear sand or are you clearing sand to live?" The allegorical dimension of this material is hard to ignore, with Samuel Beckett's idea of life as a "meaningless dream" vividly evoked by the pair's ordeal.
Initially the scientist is full of brash confidence, showing off his knowledge and disparaging his female companion. After his attempts to escape the pit falter, though, he becomes sexually attracted to this diligent, fatalistic woman. But can their relationship withstand his cravings for freedom?
"POWERFULLY EXPRESSIVE CINEMATOGRAPHY"
Teshigahara's creative background was in Japan's avant-garde arts scene, and there's a powerful expressiveness to the film's black-and-white cinematography. Form and content merge: the style reflects the oppressiveness and disorientation experienced by its characters. And, thanks in part to the fine performances of Okada and Kishida, the film suggests how human qualities of resilience, invention, and spirit can help counter the pointlessness of existence.
In Japanese with English subtitles.