The Rear-View Mirror: Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There is that insect collector on holiday who misses his last bus home and so is stuck on that sandy beach, and then he climbs down into that pit where the young widow’s house stands and asks her if he can stay the night while the other locals pull up the ladder so the collector has to stay down there. He thinks he is going home the next day. The widow knows different. She has to shovel sand every night or her house will be filled with it.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes is the quintessential movie where you get out what you put in. If there is a movie that is even more of a parable while still rooted in real life, then I can’t think of it right now. The man and the woman are polar opposites: He wants to go home, she wants to stay because the bones of her husband and daughter are buried in the sand somewhere. The man cannot stand the solitude and craves the city, the woman wouldn’t dream of going to Tokyo. So what is this movie about? What does the all-pervading sand stand for? You decide. If you think the man stands for fighting and the woman for pacifism, then you will find that in the movie, and the premise will work until the end. For such an open movie, it turns up on quite a lot of best movie lists.

There are extreme close-up shots of sand, sliding, slithering, falling, entering the widow’s home, and close-ups of insects. The music is dissonant and sometimes even disquieting. Eventually, the man, who comes to hate the dunes that keep him from leaving, sees sand glitter on the skin of the naked woman, whose body seems, at that moment during sleep, like a dune. There are moments where they hate each other, followed by moments when they are fascinated by each other’s physical form, or simply by sand on skin. It’s a good movie to re-watch every five or ten years or so, to gauge for yourself about what it is about at this or that stage in your life.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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