Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

An entomologist suffers extreme psychological and sexual torture after being taken captive by the residents of a poor seaside village.

I ended up watching three films that feature sand this year: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) and Woman in the Dunes. But it is this last 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara that will stick in my mind in the years to come. Sure, there is none of the quasi-Medician intrigue of Frank Herbert’s Dune or the Super Panavision-70 of Lawrence of Arabia (or its epic quasi-orientalist score, itself likely borrowed from Anton Bruckner’s 6th Symphony), but Woman in the Dunes doesn’t have to assert its confidence so boldly, and reveals the enormity of its plot slowly and deliberately instead. It never rushes to get to the film’s central dilemma, and it uncovers itself in little hints and insights, all whilst establishing the daily rhythm of life.

Woman in the Dunes has something of the uncanny horror as Dogtooth, as well as its broad range of potential interpretations. Both films permit a wide array of readings without resorting to being deliberately obscurantist or just plain random — it is perhaps this reason why I enjoyed them so much. It is true that asking ‘So what does the sand mean?’ sounds tediously sophomoric shorn of any context, but it somehow applies to this thoughtfully self-contained piece of cinema.