Movies often use images to produce a feeling. A movie might show a battered woman, the skin peeling from her face from her hard labor, and intend for us to feel things like pity, or sorrow, or empathy. Rarely does a film intend for an image like that to represent, not how we feel about the image, but how we feel the image itself. In Woman in the Dunes, an image of the woman’s skin shearing in the sand engenders not pity but the feeling of touching the skin. The film is a sensory experience unlike other films, a series of images designed not only visually but texturally. The story is an allegory, but one built by our senses rather than our ideals. When I write about it, I don’t feel like I’m describing what it looks like, but what it feels to let it sift through my fingers. I mean this as both self-complement and self-criticism: I could never fully describe the subjective tactile feeling of seeing this film, though I would consider the knowledge that I can’t to be the highest credentials of my description.
Recounting the events of the film would be as representative of the experience as reading a menu represents eating. The words would contain the content and none of the encounter. You meet Woman in the Dunes rather than watch it, and when you do, the result is a series of sensations that begin to represent yourself to you.
The first impression is of the sand. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa produce the best photography of sand ever captured on film. It’s more desolate than in Lawrence of Arabia and more cruelly ironic than in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The film begins with a full-screen photograph of sand under a microscope, which makes it look like a field of boulders. You get the impression of its enormity when it calves off the side of the pit, and leaks into the woman’s hut at the bottom. When the man (Eiji Okada) swallows it for moisture, I physically gagged. Teshigahara methodically shows the man shake it from his toes (feet can be as physical or sexual or emotional as hands, and more so: feet are universally symbolic in the Bible of faith and deference, cleanliness and conceit, and hands factor in only once). When the woman (Kyōko Kishida) is tied up and can’t brush the sand from her face, it clumps her hair together, coating her skin. The camera obsesses over the pattern it makes as it clings to her sweat, of her throat bobbing, of the way it sticks to her hair and frames her eyes.
The sand is getting in her clothes and scraping her skin raw. The man won’t untie her because he’s desperate for power over this situation: the villagers dumped him in this pit to dig it out with the woman for eternity. He’s like a version of Sisyphus who did nothing to earn his torment. The sand surrounds him, slips through the boards of the little hut, and covers him when he sleeps. Its texture creates the man’s emotional impressions. The woman sleeps nude to avoid the skin rashes, becoming coated in sand. The man sees her shape sexualized by it, and later sees her scraped and defiled by it when he has the upper hand. Washing it from her reveals their sexual desire. She pleads that she’s not pretty enough. The man counters by saying “Nonsense,” not because she’s beautiful, but because it couldn’t possibly matter down there. Removing the sand from each other becomes the film’s allegory for erotic desire, and Woman in the Dunes is patterned with so much desire that the setup is like a high-brow porno. It’s an intellectual rendition of the woman breaking her faucet to make a pass at the handyman. Teshigahara makes it universal. (Does he know something we don’t? By the 70s he was making very few films, content to take over his father’s flower-arrangement school. Evidently, he found a way out of the pit.)
The woman gives a vague description of their purpose, and the reason the man was kidnapped. She explains the collective’s dependence on them: “If we get buried, the house next door is in danger.” This is never explained and doesn’t have to be. The film envisions us imprisoned to dig out each other’s sand, in a world that identifies us with documents and fingerprints (images of which populate the film’s beginning) and not with the unknowable truths of who we are. A respected entomologist is enslaved to dig out a village’s excess sand so that they can continue to believe in their “love for the place they were born.” I imagine that the woman asked for a companion, which would explain their early meetings: the game where women impress and serve men by social necessity but deepened into ideology. She wants to be enough for someone. The pit could be the whole world and the desire would be the same.
Like Anton Karras’ strikes of dramatic twangs in The Third Man, composer Toru Takemitsu makes mystical horror out of moments in Woman in the Dunes. We can feel the permanence of observations by how the music strikes them down and choreographs the wind, becoming shrill and ear-ringing as the sand falls and guttural when the man tries to rape the woman in the sand to appease the villagers, and silent when the woman speaks of Tokyo as a bug would speak of the sun. Music is a voice in this film, as it is in the traditions of Japanese oral storytelling. The pleasure isn't in hearing it but in using it to interpret what's being said.
You would think that down in the pit the Man and Woman would be free of social baggage but they take their unions and their market prices down with them. The woman makes jewelry in the hope of buying a radio, possibly because she wants to hear someone else’s voice (old folks sometimes get cats for that reason) but probably to show us how useless such a thing really is. The sand they shovel is sold cheaply by the villagers to shady construction crews. Their servitude is part of a faulty economy, which makes it more representative of our own. It is an economy of irrational self-interest, which processes out the man’s passion for insects into the first step to his servitude to the needs of unknowable others. We experience it as the enormity of even one grain, placed against the texture of it inevitably overtaking us. “Are you shoveling to live,” the man asks her, “or living to shovel?” The haunting sparseness of Woman in the Dunes easily allows us to translate this question to our own lives. Sisyphus should be thankful he had something to push.
Image is a screenshot from the film.