Woman Of The Dunes: Review
Woman Of The Dunes: Review. By Joe Muldoon.
When it comes to film adaptations of classic works of literature, filmmakers are faced with a difficult choice; stay faithful to the source material and create a predictable but crowd-pleasing piece, or bravely take creative liberties and risk upsetting original fans. Visconti went with the first option with his 1967 adaptation of Albert Camus’ epoch-defining novel The Outsider (which I personally find to be an oft-overlooked film, especially considering Mastroianni’s excellent performance), and Kubrick famously opted for the latter with his 1980 version of Stephen King’s The Shining.
One thing to bear in mind about works of absurdist literature, such as Kôbô Abe’s classic The Woman in the Dunes, is that their very offbeat nature makes them incredibly difficult to tackle. The nuance required to truly capture the atmosphere and character of what is a deliberately idiosyncratic style, is something that even our greatest auteurs would struggle to grasp. Yet, despite working with such intimidating source material, Hiroshi Teshigahara managed to do just that, faithfully preserving its thematic richness in what is now arguably his most well-known and (rightly) beloved directorial feature.
Strictly speaking, a story about a man who is imprisoned in a sand dune and forced to shovel sand hardly sounds like a compelling story, but as we already know, the sandy surface is much deeper than it first appears to be. There are few surprises to fans of the novel, but this by no means hampers enjoyment of the picture.
Hiroshi Segawa’s dreamlike cinematography elevates the monochromatic film stock to a point at which it feels almost vibrant. The oppressiveness of the scorching arenaceous environment is brought brilliantly to life, the acid air emanating from the screen, and the suffocating sands sullenly sweeping across the lifeless, languorous landscape.
In our Kafkaesque tale, a schoolteacher and entomologist, Niki Junpei, uses his holiday time as an opportunity for insect-hunting, and this brings him to the outskirts of a remote desert village. Having missed the last bus from the village, he is offered lodging with one of the locals, a woman who lives alone at the bottom of a sand dune accessible only by a rope ladder. His host is as gracious as could be, and his sleep is comfortable. The following morning, he realises that the rope ladder has disappeared, eliminating the pit’s single exit point.
He soon learns that his would-be host (now his fellow prisoner) lives a Sisyphean existence, condemned to shovelling the endlessly sliding sand from the bottom of the pit, lest she become swallowed up in a deluge. Attempts to scale the dune are unsuccessful, and the man slowly realises his fate. First denial, then rebellious anger, then bargaining, then depression, and then acceptance. Hope is scant, and the human will is systematically and cruelly broken.
The parallels to our own lives are stark; is the cyclical drudgery of our own work lives any different to our protagonist’s sand-shifting? Have we not also become institutionalised within our own lives, dependent upon the very sand dunes that surround and imprison us? Perhaps Niki Junpei is more the everyman than we would ever care to admit.
By Joe Muldoon
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