A scene from “Woman in the Dunes,” which is playing next week at Space. Photo courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Some films draw you in. Like a trap.

I’m an artsy sort, but some days – like, for example, after a month of mind-numbing personal grief – the prospect of watching a two-hour-plus foreign film from nearly 60 years ago can overcome my usual love of the old, obscure and challenging when it comes to a night’s entertainment.

But, with a deadline looming, I dutifully scanned the week’s events, checked my schedule, and determined that Space’s Wednesday, Nov. 30, showing of the 1964 Japanese art film “Woman in the Dunes” was my best recourse. So I went online, found the film, and pressed play.

And I got trapped.

Since the film’s story only gradually springs that trap on a viewer, and since getting ensnared is one of the chief pleasures of “Woman in the Dunes,” I’m going to be cagey here. So here’s what I’ll choose to tell you.

A young schoolteacher and amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada, from Alain Renais’ “Hiroshima mon amour”) takes a day trip to a remote Japanese seaside location in search of specimens. He’s informed by a friendly-seeming local that the last bus has left the area, and urged to spend the night at the home of a woman whose tiny hovel lies at the bottom of a deep sand pit, only accessible via a rope ladder dangling down the ever-crumbling cliffside.


The young man accepts, finding himself fed and welcomed by a young woman (Kyōko Kishida, from Yasujirō Ozu’s “An Autumn Afternoon”) who demonstrates how she must constantly guard against the cascading sand that threatens to swallow up her makeshift home. As the man sleeps, the woman goes out into the night to shovel sand into buckets, which the men of the local village hoist up and out of the pit from above. The man wakes up the next morning, vainly attempts to brush away the sand that’s settled over him in the night, and finds his plans to return to his life in the city inexplicably altered.

And that’s all you get. I will say that director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film, part of the “Japanese New Wave” of post-war world cinema, is one of the most mesmerizing, subtly terrifying movies I’ve seen in a long while, even as its arthouse veneer and long, lingering, exquisitely photographed images of the flowing sands initially suggest anything but horrors.

“The Woman in the Dunes” pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of being simultaneously an allegory, an existential lament and a queasily plausible tale of backwater terror, all underpinned by a trenchant and brutal depiction of worker exploitation and perpetual female subjugation. In the teacher’s gradually dawning realization of his plight, there’s kinship to the folk horror fears of everything from “The Wicker Man” to even “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (no, really), while the then-contemporary arthouse fare of directors as diverse as Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard can be discerned in Teshigahara’s blend of the visceral and the poetic in depicting humanity’s existential dread and confusion.

As the man and woman make uneasy, often unsuccessful peace with their situation, their battle against each other and the cold, treacherous world outside becomes something primal, and mysterious. That even as the film grounds their individual and collective plights with sequences of breathtaking beauty – and breathtaking and unsettling cruelty. (The fact of the pair’s shared victimhood can’t overcome the man’s entrenched sexism entirely.)

Again, not going to give away the details of the trap, but the pair play out their fraught and enigmatic drama in scenes alternately (or sometimes simultaneously) erotic and unsettling. Both earthy (literally) and metaphorical, their shared but separate predicament deepens and shifts like the sands that keep them trapped, the all-too-real and maddeningly inexplicable nature of their situation reinforcing the film’s creeping fear.

“Woman in the Dunes” comes to Space, thanks to Portland-based film organization Kinonik, a not-for-profit group dedicated to preserving and screening classic films on celluloid. Kinonik’s growing collection of 16mm prints currently consists of over 500 movies, all of which are lovingly curated by a group of dedicated cineastes who are fighting the good and necessary fight to also preserve the idea that watching films has always been intended for a communal experience – preferably on film.


Now, I’m the first to confess that I watched “Woman in the Dunes” online, thanks to those other film fanatics at The Criterion Channel. But, in my defense, I can’t write about attending a film screening that hasn’t happened yet, so I think I get a pass there. Plus, I’m with Kinonik and Space – movies look better on film, and I genuinely feel more when watching them surrounded, in the dark, by other people. Ask any vinyl enthusiast why we hang onto aging copies of our favorite albums when almost all music can be streamed, downloaded and stored in a tiny gizmo in your pocket. It’s because, when the music was made, it was made for vinyl, the limitations and imperfections of the medium informing and challenging artists and technicians to do better. In short – watching a movie on film is a fuller and more rewarding experience.

Even watching “Woman in the Dunes” on my computer screen, however, is to experience a master filmmaker at work. (No one has ever depicted sand in such a viscerally exciting and evocative way – no, not even in “Lawrence of Arabia.”) Still, seeing Hiroshi Teshigahara’s artistry on Space’s big screen, among a roomful of your fellow ensnared moviegoers, is the way to go here.

“Woman in the Dunes” is showing at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30. Tickets are $7 for Space members, $9 for the general public. For more information, go to space538.org.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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