HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA FOR WOMAN IN THE DUNES
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Robert Wise for The Sound of Music
David Lean for Doctor Zhivago
John Schlesinger for Darling
William Wyler for The Collector
“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” is becoming a minor refrain in this series, particularly when it comes to foreign language nominees. Hiroshi Teshigahara became only the third individual to earn a Best Director nomination for a foreign language film (and it took no less than Federico Fellini’s force of nature La dolce vita to break that barrier four years earlier). What’s more, Teshigahara earned the honor with no more than a Best Foreign Language Film nomination to accompany it. How did he accomplish such a feat? By making one of the most striking films ever nominated in this category, before as well as since. Woman in the Dunes plays like a long episode of The Twilight Zone by way of Samuel Beckett, a haunting, discombobulating gaze into the deepest trenches of human nature and nature itself.
The premise of Woman in the Dunes is frighteningly simple. A schoolteacher (Junpei, played by Eiji Okada), collecting bugs on holiday in the desert (apparently near the sea, we gather from a brief shot of waves crashing in the distance), is stranded overnight with no means of returning home, and accepts a local’s invitation to spend the night in the home of a widow (Kyôko Kishida) who lives in a house at the bottom of a steep sand pit. In the morning, he wakes up to find the rope ladder that let him down to the bottom of the pit has vanished, and he is to join the widow in her unending task of shoveling out the sand that slowly sifts down the slopes of the dunes and into the house. From this moment on, time and space begin to shift and slip like the sheets of sand sliding down into the pit. The logic of the terrain, as well as the entrapment for that matter, make only a vague dreamlike sense. Only Junpei’s desperate, dual thoughts of escape and survival, and his hostile and erotic relationship with the inscrutable widow, retain any clarity as the sand begins to swallow up any memory of the outside world.
Even compared with his exquisitely idiosynctatic Japanese contemporaries, Teshigahara’s vision stands as an island of remarkably uncompromising abstraction. As distinctly as Victor Sjöström in The Wind or Nicholas Roeg in Walkabout (a clear heir to this film, whether consciously or not), Teshigahara makes the sweeping wasteland into a full psychological entity, infiltrating every crevice of the characters’ minds and bodies—most memorably encapsulated in a tight shot of black grains clinging to their glistening skin. Whether frantically clawing against the inconstant walls of the pit or diligently shuffling the sand out the door, the characters irresistibly throw themselves into their engulfing environment. Meanwhile, the sand itself emerges as the strongest and most complex presence; forsaking any notion of POV or other forms of spatial coherence, Teshigahara turns the sand dune pit into an endless series of wispy tableaus (courtesy of Hiroshi Segawa’s spectral cinematography) accompanied by Tôru Takemitsu’s jangling musical cues. The pit becomes a singular metaphor for bounded infinity, splaying off in every direction along with Junpei’s fevered imagination. He and the widow characters engage in a fluid game of strength and weakness, love and hate. Teshigahara’s world unmoors itself from reality, adrift in ways that challenge comprehension and ultimately sanity.
I’m prone to seeing connections between all nominated films, whether warranted or not. But to me the pairing of this film and William Wyler’s The Collector as the two rogue (i.e. non-Best Picture) nominees for 1965 must rank as one of the all-time fortuitous pairings since Margo Channing and Norma Desmond duked it out for Best Actress. Both films tell elementarily simple stories of captivity, of man and woman, prisoner and keeper. However, where Wyler coolly lays out his story like a chessboard, with painstaking definition of the parameters of the prison, the passage of time, and the evolving dynamic between predator and prey, Teshigahara violently cuts these factors loose, to drift and collide and switch places in the most unexpected of ways, presaging Ingmar Bergman’s Persona by two full years. Woman in the Dunes a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and stands out as a landmark in Oscar history. It and The Collector blow away the competition in my eyes, even the glorious 70mm swep of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. If I must choose between these polar counterparts, though, I’m compelled to give it to Teshigahara for eking out such a unique place in the Oscar landscape and the vast expanses of the cinematic imagination.