Woman of the Dunes Review
Hiroshi Teshigahara creates Woman of the Dunes as though he’s creating science fiction. Its world could almost be alien territory such is the presentation: Hiroshi Segawa’s off-kilter photography, all contours, contrasts, shapes and shades; Tôru Takemitsu’s opaque scoring, governed solely, it would seem, by avant-garde impulses and woven into a rich tapestry of noise by sound designer Keiji Mori. Yet this is also a deeply human work, our point of entry being just a plain, ordinary man. Teacher-by-day and hobbying entomologist, our ostensible hero opens the picture harmlessly seeking out new species yet discovers only a nightmare logic. If logic be the correct word, that is, for Woman of the Dunes doesn’t so much make narrative sense as it does allegorical/metaphorical sense; it’s a fevered, intense film, seemingly the result of a fevered, intense mind.
To clarify, the key development sees our entomologist effectively incarcerated against his will for the duration. He spends a night at the house of the titular woman of the dunes, a curious abode situated at the bottom of a pit under constant threat from the sands above, and is never allowed to escape. He becomes “the helper”, responsible for shifting the sands which enter his new home each night, and forges a strange relationship with, for want of a better word, landlady. Needless to say, ambiguities are rife: who is this woman? was she complicit in our hero’s entrapment? and, if so, what is her relationship with the feral-seeming villagers who live, presumably, in ordinary homes unthreatened by nature?
Yet whilst this incarceration makes Woman of the Dunes what it is, the key event comes earlier. Having spent an afternoon gathering samples, the entomologist decides upon a nap, no doubt spurred on by the intense heat. As he nods off the film switches to a number of subjective shots: the dunes superimposed with visions of his ex-wife. Recently divorced, it’s clearly playing on his mind; indeed, Woman of the Dunes can be seen as his own heightened dream, the relationship which he forms during his imprisonment informed by these recent events. Certainly, its one made up of extreme emotions, governed by self-loathing, masochism and despair.
In a nice piece of thematic cohesion, Teshigahara too can be seen as assuming the role of entomologist. His human subjects are treated as no more than mere insects, dwarfed as they are by the immense sand vistas (and especially the steep walls of the pit) and placed under the director’s microscope as it were. Teshigahara pores over the tiniest of details, both visually and emotionally, the results being really quite suffocating, albeit in the best sense of the word. Woman of the Dunes is a film which envelops and overtakes its viewers, yet we’re always aware as to who’s in control. Indeed, the resourcefulness, the visual efficiency (the flesh-sand interface being as successful an example of the suffocation as you’ll ever find), the manner in which the score, say, seems to affect the characters and us with it just by being, all point towards to a fierce, perfectly realised intelligence.
Teshigahara’s major achievement, however, is never to digress too far away from his leads. Woman of the Dunes, ultimately, is a character piece and one not dissimilar from late-sixties’ Bergman. It shares with Persona (or Hour of the Wolf or A Passion) that sense of being pyschodrama at its most intense, yet also at its most real. The relationship which builds between the main characters is incredibly rich, being both ordinary and strange. As said, it works within the context of this divorced man’s mind: they begin poles apart – clearly he has only disgust for her, peppering his speech with chauvinistic asides and noting his “respectable job [and] registered address” – but soon achieve some semblance of domesticity. You could argue that we’re seeing the divorced relationship playing out in reverse, wish fulfilment on the part of our entomologist, albeit with repeated nightmarish edges. Furthermore, the two actors – Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida – visibly grow into their parts. The man loses his initial anonymity, feeling more rounded and realised by the conclusion. Likewise, the woman comes across as a little more knowable towards the end. The strange sexual overtones of the first half – does she sleep naked for purely practical reasons or is this a come-on, a taunt or just plain naïveté on her part? – give way to self-esteem and characteristics more in line with the acceptable. Indeed, for all its visual and sonic flamboyance Woman of the Dunes boils down to a single, human drama, and on these terms it works fully. You may never have seen anything quite like it, but ultimately it’s what we do recognise which makes it so powerful.
Though extras-light (only a booklet, though this is nicely put together and full of interesting articles) Woman of the Dunes in this particular DVD incarnation is a particularly covetable item. The film comes in its full-length version and thus betters the VHS put out by the BFI (under their Connoisseur Video guise) in the mid-nineties. Furthermore, the presentation is superb. The image is clean, crisp and does full justice to Segawa’s compositions. The contrast levels appear spot on, details are readily available to the eye and technical problems are at an absolute minimum. We also get the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, whilst the English subtitles are optional. As for the soundtrack, here the original Japanese mono comes across superbly: score, dialogue and noise all conspire just as Mori would have intended. All told, an excellent presentation for an eagerly awaited release.