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Movie Reviews

Woman In The Dunes  

The recently warm temperatures probably inspire thoughts of summer days walking on sandy Prince Edward Island beaches, sand clinging to your heels. Sure, sometimes those dunes may be hard to climb over, but you don't mind. You'd frolic in the deep sand all day if you could. In fact, you might never want to leave.

Then again, you wouldn't be in the predicament facing the main character of the 1966 Japanese film Woman In The Dunes. He's an insect expert who takes a holiday from the noise of the city to explore a remote desert area, hoping to find a rare species of tiger beetle. Perhaps, he hopes, he'll have an insect named after him if he discovers it. He is awakened by a villager, and is told the last bus already left, and offers him a place to stay. The visitor says he would like that, for he enjoys experiencing local hospitality. If I were in this movie and had accepted his offer, I'd be kicking myself later for having said that.

It turns out that the house he stays in is in a deep pit, inhabited by a woman whose family was buried long ago by the sand. She tells him the sand is constantly falling into the cracks in the rickety house, and must be dug out every night. He finds this all rather peculiar, but things become more stranger. Next morning, the ladder he used to get down into the pit is gone. And so he cannot get out. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot do it, and is also forced into this unexplainable life. And his close proximity to the woman of the house develops into a couple of surprising passionate encounters.

There is no logic to the story; you can only experience it. If this were any other movie, it would probably make no sense at all. But with this treatment, the message seems to be that life is futile, and no matter how much you struggle, you'll always be knocked down and forced to struggle again and again. This explains itself in a perfect shot where the man, attempting to escape for the first time, tries again and again to run up the hill, while at the same time the sand keeps falling and falling downwards keeping him from moving any further. Even worse than that, however, is the notion that even when something better does in fact come along, a person may eventually feel so safe in their useless existence that there is no desire to find a better freedom. It may be too unusual, or even scary for them. What the main character does at the end is just bewildering.

The film itself is very well-done. The pacing and editing are great. Many stand-out scenes include a surprising moment when he actually does escape....for a while. There are also many shots of sand upon skin, well-defined when appearing on black-and-white film, and that composition works well in a lovely sequence where the two brush the sand off each other's skin and gradually enter into their first burst of passion.

This very mysterious film is definitely not for all tastes. But its great filmmaking makes it a worthy, if difficult, film.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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