In the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes a man spends seven years trapped in a sand pit. That summary and the film’s running time of two hours and twenty minutes may put some viewers off, but that would be a mistake. This is a beautiful film with a mesmerising minimalist soundtrack, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, that became a Japanese New Wave classic. Andrei Tarkovsky included it in his list of the best ten films ever made. Like Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel the premise may be balmy, but the consequences that flow from it takes us to the heart of what it means to be human.
An amateur entomologist with no name arrives in a remote area of sand dunes hoping to identify a type of sand beetle and thereby make his name. He misses the last bus home and a villager offers him a room for the night in a wooden shack at the bottom of a steep sand dune. He descends with care by rope ladder which in the morning he discovers has been pulled up and he is captured like one of his bugs in a bottle. Within the dune is a similarly marooned woman who calls the man guest, which odd given he is trapped forever, who has accommodated herself to her situation. Every night for hours she shovels sand out of the pit, with a system of pulleys, to keep herself alive. Every time the wind gets up sand comes cascading down on top of the house, the man and the woman putting their lives in jeopardy. The nightly moving of the sand is a matter of life and death: ‘Last year,’ the woman says, ‘a storm swallowed up my husband and child.’ Food and water is lowered daily by villagers but only if enough sand has been dug out by the two over night.
Over time the man and the woman start a sexual relationship. Is she seeking to sexually exploit her captive, or is she complying because she needs someone to help dig sand out to keep herself alive? This is an erotic, existential horror film about a man trapped with a beautiful woman and offered her body in exchange for life long servitude. The tactile lush, sensuous images of sand and bodies heighten the sumptuous hyper-reality and surrealism of the situation.
The man rebels violently against his imprisonment. Resisting in various ways he makes a hand made rope and wood into a grappling hook, he pleads with his village captors to release him, he ties up the woman and uses her to try to barter with his captors, he frantically clambers unsuccessfully over the shifting sand, he sets a trap for a crow so he would be able to attach a message of help to its leg and release it. None of these stratagems are successful and his endlessly frustrated hope is the source of his keen suffering.
The woman by contrast copes with ease, grace and equanimity with her predicament. She handles with dignity all the contempt, abuse, pity and desire he can throw at her. She never questions why she cannot leave the house and dune. She believes her endless digging of the sand is done in the name of the community because, she says, if they do not keep digging the house next door will be in danger. The woman has learnt how to live with her situation and unlike him she never seems to suffer. Her lack of hope is not to be taken for despair, her lack of hope is to be taken for equanimity.
The Greeks took the view that hope was as much an evil as a good. Dissatisfaction is one of the enduring features of being human. We either fail to achieve that which we hope for, or alternatively as soon as we get what we want we hope for something else. Either way hope is the wished for path out of our discontent. The daily re-emergence of hope is one of the delusions that powers the dynamics of human existence. In endless acts of amnesia we repeatedly ignore our thwarted past hopes in order to chase one will-o-the-wisp after another. Hope is the sustaining fiction that persuades the human to raise themselves and go again towards failure. Are we never going to learn the lessons of disappointment? Hope can be read as an obtuse indifference to the lessons of experience or the plucky refusal to be defeated. This endless manufacture of self-deceit is called human existence.
The man ponders whether the woman’s lack of hope for freedom from the dune makes her less than human, but it is his frantic hopes of escape that drives him to the edge of losing his humanity. He has already tied her up for days and tried to barter using her body as his way out of the dune to no avail. Later he begs with the village elders merely for half an hour out of the dune under supervision by his captors just to look at the sea. The male villagers say they will allow it but only if they can watch the man and woman have sex in the dune. The woman refuses and the man grabs her and makes a concerted attempt to rape her, until she manages to fight him off.
Hamlet asked in the most famous of his soliloquies whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? The woman’s lack of hope makes her passive and inert whereas hope drives the man on in his enterprises. A by-product of his useless crow trap is a discovery of a way to draw water from the damp sand at night and he becomes absorbed in the task of perfecting the technique. He starts measuring the water levels and charting them in a notebook. Is he going to make a scientific breakthrough after all?
Woman in the Dunes is a claustrophobic parable of the human dilemma. The man and the woman are both captives with one accepting fate and the other desperately trying to escape it. This is a film about the absurdity and complexity of the struggle to remain alive. Because they have no names the man and woman exhibit an archetypal quality. Are we throwing ourselves into pursuits that seem to be useful which in fact are just distractions to pass the time? Are we trapped in our own endless world of cascading sand doing mindless work that never ends? ‘Are you shovelling to live or living to shovel?’ the man asks the woman. At the end of the film, and after seven years, the rope ladder reappears and the man has a chance to leave but he chooses to remain within his prison. Is this a film about damnation or salvation? Has, like Joseph K in The Trial, the man become complicit in his own predicament? Or has, like Sisyphus, the man become happy with his endless, repetitive daily task? This riddle-in-the-sand tale represents the futility of existence, the aimlessness of time, the erasure of identity and the doomed search for meaning in the face of an unintelligible world in which there is no God. Up for an Oscar in 1965 Teshigahara lost out to the director of The Sound of Music. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens this film is not. Don’t miss the last bus back to civilisation.