Chatting with Ben about the sands of time that trickle on through Woman in the Dunes (Japan, 1964, Teshigahara)
I was attracted to her the second she appeared in the film and he worked for me too. But nevermind the actors, (good performances), the erotic scenes, especially the first (dry) one, finally arriving as they do in that context, and filmed so well - I was flabbergasted that the filmmaker could make me feel that way given that his is a promotional video for the Albert Camus Summer Camp. But THAT is precisely why the sex is so hot, isn't it? Desperate, estranged, claustrophobic, incarcerared, scratchy, sandy (sandy!) probably painful - great - sex. I generally find so-called erotic scenes to be gratuitous. But this was entirely intrinsic to the situation portrayed and absolutely essential to the themes explored.
About those themes, hey, halfway through the film I said to Monica that it was Endgame staged on the backlot of Lawrence of Arabia. But the British thriller/horror film, The Collector, also came to mind, as did Kurosawa's treatment of The Lower Depths (duh! for the latter). I see our Adam and Eve (way way east of Eden) trapped together in every possible existential sense and theirs is a kind of unavoidable dance of life. Is it meaningless? I don't think so. He doesn't rape her in front of the gawking villagers. (Great theatre-of-cruelty scene, with the masks.) The villagers do come down to take her to a doctor. And the man does exercise his free will to stay in Hell. Sure it's Hell. But Tokyo is Hell. Your place is Hell. My place is Hell. Life is Hell. But we still have to CHOOSE life.
On the other hand, the film is hardly life affirming. The events follow each other in a history-negating way that Sartre termed seriality. This is not to be confused with Henry Ford's one-damn-thing-after another negation of history (or did he say that history was ''bunk''?) This is instead a deeper negation of real change in ostensibly acknowledged history. All of the escape strategies attempted by the man prove to be nothing more than different squares on the same chess board until eventually the man simply replaces the woman. Same difference. Futile change.
However you read it, the film is a powerhouse of images. I honestly cannot think of another film that so relentlessly and therefore effectively employs tight-frame composition and the close-up. This approach in form echos the content of the bug collecting, the bead stringing, the sand sifting and so forth, all of this versions of contained, microscopic conduct. But this echo is secondary (of course Ben, an echo is secondary by definition, but seriously...) to the emotional impact on the audience of literally never being allowed to see the big picture. We, the viewers, are trapped by the filmmaker, condemned to the atomistic and isolated frame of reference, the scale of the self alone. Sarte defined Hell as other people but when you watch Woman in the Dunes you feel like one of those horses with the peripheral blinders on. Even more than Kurosawa's Lower Depths - because there is a kind of community in that hole and we see its members coming and going - this time we are seriously in a goddamn pit.
All right, as you know, I saw this again, and I concur that it is hot, Hot, HOT. And sad, sadder, saddest. Yet perversely hopeful. The images of the couple cleaning each other's bodies was awfully risible, if you get my drift (heh). Speaking of Marienbad (as you were) , the sandy sex scenes reminded me of the opening shots of Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which show us a couple making the beast with two backs while a silvery sand (nuclear fallout?) falls on their glistening skin. In both cases, sex provides an all too-brief opportunity to escape from the bleakness of our "regular" lives. In so many ways, WitD is another variation on the Myth of Sisyphus, a literary analogy I've used in the past, so forgive me if I'm repeating myself. These characters may be condemned to push their rocks up that sandy hill, over and over again, but at some point it stops being a prison sentence and instead becomes a raison d'etre. As Camus argues, it is in the sensual pleasure of that journey up the hill that we find meaning. Now, as a guiding philosophy for all of humanity, this seems terribly inadequate. Why do we have to do it alone? Where's the community of souls that offers meaning for most human societies? Still, in its own limited way, the myth has some relevance, providing a hint of purpose for the lives of the characters in this film.
As I mentioned to you, the couple in this film made me think of the essay on John Ford by Geoffrey O'Brien. O'Brien noted that the pre-eminent motif in Ford's films is of the soldier/cowboy/ rugged individualist stationed on the outskirts of society, who (usually voluntarily) surrenders his freedom/dreams/ambitions in order to protect the rituals and conventions, however delusional, that bind those who live within these individual's protective circle. In a peculiar way, the film also reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. The villagers are like the extra-terrestrials who take the protagonist out of his earthly environment and make him an exhibit in their zoo, even going so far as to provide him with a beautiful woman so they can observe their mating rituals. Of course, in WITD, the protagonist is an entymologist who has himself playing a similar game with the critters he collects. When the roles are reversed, and he is turned into the villager's slave and a subject for their voyeuristic entertainment, it would seem an opportunity for his character to re-evaluate his vocation. But it is only through his feelings for the woman that he begins to see the validity of surrendering to the greater good.
Still, this is an entropic vision. The world is in a perpetual state of decay, and all we can do is put our shoulder to the wheel and prop it up for a little while. There will be a few moments when we will be able to escape from the knowledge of imminent death, such as the act of copulation, but we shouldn't fool ourselves. These are momentary respites, not final escapes. And yet, when the opportunity for freedom arises, the man will not take it, choosing ultimately to embrace the role of social outsider, protector of the dune dwellers. He remains a good soldier instead, patrolling the community's periphery, providing the village's first line of defense against life's corrosive effects.