Monday, 26 July 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'Woman in the Dunes'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

I first saw Hiroshi Teshigahara’s ‘Woman in the Dunes’ early into my first year of college, buried somewhere amidst the treasure trove of world cinema classics YouTube were (knowingly or not) hawking at that time. It immediately struck me as something special but similar to Harakiri I actually found finishing the picture a real challenge. It’s a Gordian knot of Sisyphean black magic I found exhausting on the first few attempts.

Flash forward to now and there’s sometimes a saying between artists, painfully amateur or immortally profound, that they wish they’d made someone else’s work. ‘Woman in the Dunes’ is my movie.


How alien Teshigahara and long-time composer Toru Takemitsu make these simple beach dunes feel: The shrill strings locking into a faraway scream so tense they sound a second away from snapping while we see this nameless, faceless wanderer exploring a lifeless ocean of sand- all while the wind twists the landscape into a moving maze. The real punchline is Teshigahara cutting to the open ocean to remind us we’re just a short walk from reality- and that’s only as far away as you need to be to lose your mind.

These jagged, grainy hand-held shots interspersed throughout the opening. It may seem at odds with Teshigara’s otherwise sturdy, eerily patient style but I’ve always felt there’s an intimacy in letting your film’s form be vulnerable and alive like this. Particularly in the opening scene, when we’re just getting (un)comfortable, it invites the audience through a little window of how the film was made.

This out-of-nowhere Macro shot of a writhing bug.

The way the man sneaking up on our ‘hero’ creates two shadows, each of differing intensities. It’s a brilliant little image but was that natural sunshine, or did the crew bring something in to stencil him again?

How empty the film’s first human interaction is. Neither man will meet eachother’s gaze, always making excuses with their eyes. Are they both to blame?

Hiroshi Segawa’s photography.

Jumpei giggling as his colossal finger comes into frame to toy with a terrified bug.

Ever since I first saw Woman in the Dunes, this little dream sequence has been burned into my memory: The ship marooned in the sand, the faces bleeding over the banks, the way this unknown spectre of a woman is there- in the flesh. There’s a quiet joy in sharing these kind of abstract dreams with your audience because you’re sharing the character’s own confusion. I’m so much closer to our hero, Jumpei, because I’m now equally wondering what the hell is going on in that head…

This little line suits Jumpei’s character so well, it’s like they smelled blood the second they saw him.

This simple two-shot creep-in as our characters get to know eachother. It’s a four minute long scene in one take that perfectly traps their sweet, clammy chemistry in the vice-like gaze of something far darker. I see pretty much 95% of film conversations handled in shot-reverse shot… and it’s pretty telling that many of the ‘greats’ tried to stray away from this crutch as often as possible.

Our unnamed ‘heroine’ working away with her back to us throughout this revelation.

Teshigahara turning simple light into another luxury: There is very real, voidlike darkness in the nights of Woman in the Dunes- and the crew tend to stick with a one-lamp discipline superbly.

The time we get to take in this frame. Part of the genius of Woman in the Dunes, as I mentioned earlier, is the way the style invites us to participate in the experience- and how swiftly the originally welcoming pulse springs its trap and forces us to endure the gut-wrenching passage of time. Nothing happens in this minute-long static shot except Jumpei sitting there, thinking. Am I trapped? Are we stuck there with him?

My obsession with multiple exposure was kicked off by this film alone, way back when I was 16. Teshigahara’s compositions and the way they slip across eachother capture this bleeding edge of wonder between grace and horror I’ve never seen anywhere else.

The morning light flooding in on the flick of a switch, on beat with Takemitsu. The gorgeous silhouettes- and Jumpei staring at her. Teshigahara doesn’t judge here, but notice the way the camera sits beside him- rather than the usual frontal shot to capture a character looking back at something. We’re watching him- complicit.

Friendly reminder that this is Anakin Skywalker’s least favourite film.

The mortified look on the Girl’s face when Jumpei realises he’s stuck down there.

The sandslide triggering right as this revelation happens, in tune with more screeching strings. Teshigahara sews his characters’ souls into the land around them so vividly it practically breathes whenever they do.

There’s something so hideous about how entrenched all these people are in the delusion that this is the right way to do things, particularly at a time in the world where ‘modern living’ was about to slip into full swing.

Teshigahara fully charting Jumpei’s attempt to escape, even if we know its futile. Reminds me in a lot of ways about Jacques Becker’s ‘Le Trou’- the way we sit and observe all this wordless labour. Each time he tries the mind around him fractures and falls a little further until the whole thing comes crashing down…

The dunes cracking on cue to Takemitsu’s percussion.

This nightmarish flow of sand like liquid, in line with the rowboat stuck in the dunes from earlier, again brings my mind to the way we’re headed.

How quickly Teshigahara lets his ‘hero’ attack, bind and take hostage his only friend in this inky new world. While the French New Wave’s biggest names tended to brush off callousness as a worthy cinematic vice- but Japan’s answer to the world cinema renaissance of the 1960s was facing into human nature like no-one had before.

The faint sniggering of the townsfolk after they’ve dropped Jumpei.

And the same townsfolk dropping cigarettes and booze the night after. Is this a parlay- do they have compassion enough to lend some (less than healthy) luxuries to ease the pain? Or are they hoping he gets drunk enough to be punished again? 

This wonderfully ‘Japanese New Wave’ shot.

How gracefully we trace Jumpei’s fracturing mind: Softly shifting sand, then the lonely moon at war with the dark- and finally his head in his hands. Beautiful moment.

The inky swathes of darkness clouding this composition.

The stuffy, inelegant coverage of the sex scene. The way all sound bleeds away for Takemitsu’s faraway terror brooding in the background. The fact we can actually see the shadows of the crew darting across the frame and how much that adds. This is the scene where it all comes flooding out and the emotional punch is nothing short of otherworldly.

Jumpei’s world breaking down even while he’s wide awake.

Jumpei tricking the Girl into downing the rest of the alcohol- and the callous look in his eye as he watches his plan click into motion. Teshigahara is very keyed-in to the way this man uses and abuses S as he pleases and using this tension to knit yet another layer into the conflict: If he escapes she will starve- but if he can’t she might slowly waste away at his whim…

The lack of any triumph as Jumpei secures his first way to freedom. The only soundtrack to his isolation is the howling wind.

And the way Takemitsu’s score is saved, only slowly clawing its way under the film’s skin as Jumpei begins to wander the faceless dunes- ever-wondering which path might get him the fuck out of there. It’s such a desolately human sequence.

Most every line of the vile chatter between the townsfolk. It’s enough that Jumpei was caught- but every word of the bile they giggle around plugs him further into the depths. Funnily enough I don’t think they seem particularly sadistic- the smiles of this man’s captors simply show they’re happy to be free.

The chilling simplicity of this delusion if we take Woman in the Dunes’s hut in a pit of sand as an allegory for the mind: Ever-fighting to keep the walls from closing in but forever unable to escape- and how even at our loneliest we still hope it’s someone else’s responsibility to save us. After all, why lift a finger while it’s so easy to just survive?

Woman in the Dunes strikes me almost as the ‘art film’ perfected, in that its an intensely compelling drama that at the same time could be mutated in meaning into any one of a thousand elements of our lives. I can never pull my eyes away while my mind is on fire with everything it could be.

The sombre onlookers of the maniacal display. Have they been down there too?

The fact that the difference between this and any other household on the planet is just higher ground.

Teshigahara’s sublime imagery and the morbid intimacy he creates by creeping up on his characters. All their lonely moments of reflection feel stolen, rather than shared.

Jumpei placing the dried up dead fish above his newfound source of water to trick any onlookers. Every new detail locks step with the last.

This elegant, otherworldly reflection shot. These images come from the same camera move.

How quietly haunting it is to hear simple, serene classical music mumbling out of the radio after a whole film of Takemitsu’s avant-aggressions. It’s a piercing reminder that the world’s art also lies out of reach.

Eji Okada again proving he was one of the most criminally undersung (and underused) actors of his time. The depth of anguish drilled into every pore of his face burns so dark it almost drowns the flame back into white-hot apathy.

Teshigahara choosing to end so suddenly- free of catharsis- with a legal document of disappearance. After Jumpei’s scattered condemnation of looming modernity his final decision to stay ‘a little longer’ clicks into place with this footnote of a life once lived as the final, damning punctuation. And while it’s a little jarring the blank, typed-out sterility of this closing moment accompanied solely by the ashen dunes dead still behind it feels like the perfect way to rattle off this morbid obituary for 20th century adventure. Woman in the Dunes is a reminder that every inch of disappearing ground we codify and categorise will drive somebody back out into the blank spaces of the map of their own mind- in search for something this knotted mess of ‘civilised’ kind couldn’t hope to comprehend. Will we ever know what it was?

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