Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The horror of choice: Woman in the Dunes
(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

The ant-lion, also known as doodlebug, is a tiny predatory insect that digs little pits in the sand, then hides at the bottom waiting for preys, typically ants, to fall in. When this happens, the sides of the pit start to collapse, dragging the ant down toward its doom. If you are wondering why I'm telling you this, you probably haven't seen Woman in the Dunes.

In the title sequence, punctuated by the percussive score by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, stamps and fingerprints appear in succession alongside the credits. At first their meaning eludes us, but it will become clear later. As the film begins, a man is walking in a sunny desert. His clothing as well as his demeanor suggest that he's a scientist; in fact, as he explains to a local villager, he's a school teacher and amateur entomologist in search of specimens of insects that live in the sand. He's radiant with joy as he trots through the dunes, perfectly equipped with a rucksack, a photo camera, a sun hat, a butterfly net, and a set of glass vials where he puts captured insects. We get a close-up of an ant-lion hiding under the sand, while on the sound track the teacher laughs at the insect's pathetic attempts to fake death to avoid capture. What he doesn't know is that a similar fate will soon befall him.

Director Hiroshi Teshigahara (1927 - 2001) wisely chose to shoot the film in black and white. We can appreciate the effects of this choice already in the scenes I have just described. Colors would have made the protagonist stand out against the uniform desert background; their absence, instead, make him appear lost in a sea of sand that becomes more and more menacing afer each shot. Coherently, in exterior scenes sharp contrasts between blacks and whites are avoided in order to convey the feeling of an oppressive, invasive environment that occludes the skin pores and penetrates every fold in the clothing. B&W also enhances the granular sand textures, while lending an abstract quality to the vast, quasi-lunar landscape, as if the desert was at the same time a physical place and state of mind.

After having walked several miles under the jaguar sun, the teacher eventually encounters a local villager who informs him that the last bus to the city has already left, and invites him to spend the night in a private home in the nearest village. Without losing his smile, the teacher accepts the accommodation and follows the man to a ramshackle cabin located at the bottom of a steep sand quarry. "No comforts here", warns the man, pointing to a precarious rope ladder dangling over the pit. Then the teacher confidently climbs down, where he is welcomed by a demure and taciturn woman who offers him dinner and a bed for the night. There is neither running water nor electricity in the cabin; an oil lamp casts a flickering light on the walls, making the house seem even more claustrophobic. Sand seeps through the cracks in the ceiling, and the woman talks nonsense about insects the teacher has never heard of, and the supposedly corrosive effects of sand on objects and people alike. The teacher reassures himself by thinking that it's just a matter of one night.

The morning after he regretfully realizes the situation he has gotten himself into: the rope ladder has disappeared, and the pit's sand walls collapse as he tries to climb up. Little by little, the truth emerges: the woman's husband and daughter died in a sandstorm, so the villagers procured a surrogate husband to help her with the gruelling task of shoveling away the sand that incessantly deposits around the house perimeter, so that it can be sold to construction firms. In a panic reaction, the teacher takes the woman hostage in the hope that the villagers will set him free. In retribution, they cut off food and water supplies, so he understands that he better accept his condition as a prisoner and cooperate with the woman if he wants to survive.

At first sight, every element in this movie seems to have nothing to do with our ordinary life. The protagonist is an entomologist, a profession that certainly doesn't immediately hit familiar notes. The story is set in a desert; references to urban, organized life are scarce, and always hinted at rather than shown. We never have direct access to the teacher's previous life; the only exception is a mirage sequence where he is haunted by an unidentified woman probably from his past, an hallucinatory flashback that is never explained and gives us only a brief, vague glimpse of the character's background. Ordinary objects like wristwatches, shoes and teapots lose their domestic, reassuring appearance amid the desolate loneliness of the landscape. All this contributes to create a self-contained world which is physically as well as temporally removed from civilization. The teacher's experience in fact can be described as a violent detachment from the constraints of society, both its suffocating rules and the protection it offers. The seals we see at the beginning are the symbols of a world that forces people in pre-established rails, but also saves them from the horror vacui of existence by giving them goals to pursue and tasks to accomplish. The desert instead perfectly incarnates the incessant, ever-changing flow of life which cannot be encapsulated in preordained forms. In this sense, Woman in the Dunes can be regarded as a precursor to John Boorman's 1972 Deliverance, another movie that demolishes the romantic image of nature as mother, presenting it in all its raw brutality. Both movies suggest that our idea of nature as an idyllic place collapses in the very moment when we are deprived of the comforts of progress.

Disconnected from his previous existence, the entomologist also lives far from the protection of the law, whose all-embracing, oppressive power he once felt and feared. At one point, he says to himself that he shouldn't worry, because after all he's on the right side. He's wrong. Every attempt he makes to appeal to the law will inevitably be frustrated on this side of civilization. We empathize with him in the same way that we feel the anguish of Josef K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Trial, as he struggles to find a way out of an unfathomable scheme he has no control upon (the difference, of course, is that Josef K. experiences solitude and despair inside society, not outside of it).

(Warning: major spoilers in the next paragraphs. I've flagged them in blue so that you can skip them.)

But if our ordinary world is far away in this movie, yet it's precisely the abstractness of the story that makes it all the more universal. Isn't the protagonist's claustrophobic situation something we all can understand? Actually, claustrophobia doesn't come from the impossibility for him to escape, but from the fact that, when confronted with the choice of freeing himself, he chooses to stay. If you have ever experienced something similar with a job you disliked, a relationship you weren't able to end, or a chance you didn't have the guts to take, then you'll definitely understand why, despite its unrealistic circumstances and unfamiliar setting, Woman in the Dunes tells in fact a human, all too human story. It's a movie about regret and missed opportunities, and about how things we think of as temporary end up taking the most part of our lives.

These musings led me to think about a famous book that shares striking similarities with Teshigahara's film, the 1940 novel The Tartar Steppe by Italian writer Dino Buzzati. The novel's hero Giovanni Drogo is a young military officer who agrees to be deployed in an isolated fortress overlooking an uninhabited desert region, in the hope that one day the long-sought war against the legendary people of the Tartars will compensate him for the unrewarding years spent in that inhospitable moor. Here's how Buzzati explained the genesis of the book:
The idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night-shift I was working at Corriere della Sera [an Italian newspaper] in those days. It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.
In fact, both the film and the book are set in a geographically unspecified desert and feature a man trying to find a meaning to an aimless, yet largely self-imposed existence. Although the entomologist is initially forced to stay in the desert against his will while the officer enlists voluntarily in the defense of the fortress, both end up accepting their confinement despite, or rather precisely because, they have a way of escape close at hand. Could The Tartar Steppe have had an influence on the Woman in the Dunes, or perhaps on the book it is based upon, Kōbō Abe's 1962 novel of the same name? I've made a little research, but an answer doesn't seem obvious. However, as Roger Ebert observes in his Great Movies review, the movie's major source of inspiration is the myth of Sisyphus, the man condemned to the endless task of pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again every time.

Besides arousing our innermost fears with its metaphysical horrors, the film also engages us intensely on a sensory level. After the water supply has been cut off following the teacher's mutiny, a long sequence shows the devastating effects of thirst on him and the woman. You'll definitely want to pour yourself a glass of lemonade during these moments. The director's approach is to both show and suggest: sometimes we're given an extreme close-up of some sand grains adhering to the woman's pores, other times a teapot enveloped in cellophane is enough to suggest the unpleasantness of ingesting a drink with sand inside. Extremely discomforting, too, is how sand is given qualities that we usually associate with water. Sand falls resemble waterfalls, while shifting dunes resemble sea waves. Dishes are washed by rubbing them with a handful of sand, and a big umbrella protects the dining table from an incessant drizzle of sand grains. The woman also explains that sand makes things putrefy just like humidity does. ("Never heard of the desert's moisture!", exclaims the teacher sarcastically.) From the cellophane-wrapped teapot to the umbrella against the pouring sand, all the details revolving around the woman's thankless life build up slowly but unrelentingly a sense of deep uneasiness, while the protagonist's amused reaction to the woman's apparently nonsense talk leads us to underestimate the seriousness of the situation. This technique is typical of some horror films (for which Woman in the Dunes certainly qualifies), a more recent example being Takashi Miike's 1999 psychological J-horror Audition: it consists in building up tension by insinuating horrific or bizarre elements almost inadvertently, only to let them deflagrate later in all their shocking violence. (By the way, Claude Chabrol's 1995 La Cérémonie is another excellent movie I would add to the list.) Teshigara's film is particularly effective because it works both on a physical and existential level, evoking the suffering of bodies as well as the absurdity of the characters' fates.

The film's horrific elements could easily overshadow its often ironic tone, which comes largely from the protagonist's unawareness of the torturous experience awaiting him. In the dinner scene the teacher's intellectual arrogance made me laugh out loud, especially on subsequent viewings as I knew where it all was getting at. The scene where the villagers shout "Hey, we brought the helper's tools!", while the teacher scratches his head saying "There must be some misunderstanding", is irresistibly funny and tragic at the same time. By the end of the movie, we are left with a bittersweet taste. Are we supposed to feel pity for the poor entomologist, who thought he could control the world around him with his naive enthusiasm and his butterfly net, or should we empathize with his efforts to be happy in spite of adverse circumstances? I don't know, but I guess the answer has something to do with man's half tragic, half ridiculous destiny.

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