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The Woman in the Dunes

Sisyphus in the desert.

DIRECTED BY HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA

The directors’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always been among the most adventurous (consider this year’s nomination for Michael Haneke, or Lina Wertmüller’s status as the first female nominee on behalf of the deliriously strange Seven Beauties), but rarely has it strayed as far from the pool of mainstream prestige pictures as it did in 1965, when its members nominated Japanese avant-garde filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara for The Woman in the Dunes. Teshigahara lost, rather predictably, to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music, but that his existentialist horror film should have been mentioned at all is an odd testament to its sheer force, and its ability to stir deep anxieties even among those who’d normally swoon for musicals and historical epics.

After a jarring opening credits sequence that blasts Toru Takemitsu’s high-strung score (to which Jonny Greenwood memorably played tribute in his work on There Will Be Blood), we pick up with Jumpei (Hiroshima Mon Amour’s Eji Okada), a teacher-turned-entomologist from Tokyo sojourning in a small village in the desert to collect insects that dwell only in sand dunes. Needing a place for the night after he misses his bus, he follows the advice of some of the locals, who lead him down to a quarry occupied by the titular woman (Kyôko Kishida), a young widow forced to dig up sand for sale, lest her house be completely buried. What he doesn’t know is that the villagers plan to strand him in her employ, trapping him without any hope of escape or relief, save for weekly water rations.

The mythical thrust of Jumpei’s Sisyphean labour is powerful stuff: no matter how much he digs, or how close he comes to escape, the threat of another burial is just minutes away, and the thought of a life spent in perpetual toil is right behind it. But it’s the aesthetic as much as the thematic details that enrapture us. Teshigahara shoots his leads like the insects Jumpei pins to his boards. He pivots between medium shots of the couple growing closer in their claustrophobic setting and extreme close-ups of their sand-blasted flesh that are both erotic and grotesque; at times he renders the stubble on Okada’s chin indistinguishable from a bug’s antennae. What better way to tell a story of survival without triumph than to reduce the protagonists to a pair of hardened termites?

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