Much lauded on its release in 1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes, adapted by Kôbô Abe from his own novel, has certainly stood the test of time. A pared-down allegorical reflection on the human condition set in an oppressive, limitless sand and sea landscape, it is also an intense, gripping drama that keeps you hooked until the deeply troubling end.
Jumpei Nika, an amateur entomologist, spends a day roaming about a beach in search of insects but misses the last bus back to his hotel. The local villagers offer to put him up and take him to a young widow’s house built at the bottom of a sandpit that can only be accessed by a rope ladder. The next day, when Jumpei wants to leave, the ladder is gone. The widow explains that the villagers ensnare visitors to help shovelling the sand that constantly threatens to engulf their village. Jumpei, horrified, makes desperate attempts to escape but all in vain. As the sand infiltrates every nook of the house and every part of their bodies, the erotic tension mounts, leading to extraordinarily sensual scenes.
The brilliantly inventive direction turns the stark, minimal set-up into a powerful metaphor for human life. The numerous close-ups blur the boundaries between human and natural realms and suggest intricate parallels between the destinies of men and insects. Jumpei, the bug-catcher, is caught like the insect trapped in the lamp while the widow, herself a prisoner in her sand hole, snares him in her den like the spider seen hiding in the shadow. The ferocious vision of mankind culminates in a chilling scene where masked villagers jeer at the helpless couple down in the pit, like some cruel divinities. A striking, thought-provoking, beautifully shot piece of film-making, this is an absolute must-see.
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Hélène de Fougerolles, Zoé Auclair
Based on a nineteenth-century short story by Frank Wedekind, Innocence is the debut feature of Lucile Hadžihalilović, a long-time collaborator of controversial French director Gaspar Noé (Irréversible, Seul contre tous). A dreamy Gothic fairy tale, its slow-paced portrayal of female childhood is imbued with a deliberately old-fashioned feel. In a way reminiscent of Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, it uses elements borrowed from the horror genre to depict childhood fears, conjuring up a mood of understated disquiet.
Set in an isolated all-girl boarding school deep in the woods, the film starts with new girl Iris arriving in a coffin, as is the custom of the school. Tutored by older girl Bianca, Iris adapts to the quaint atmosphere of her new abode, where, entirely cut off from the outside world, the pupils are raised in a strict but benevolent manner, playing in the gardens when they are not being taught dance or biology. But at night lights come on in the forest to guide the older girls to a mysterious other building.
Underground tunnels, eerily silent rooms, dark corridors, enigmatic teachers, carefree games and beautiful surroundings create an atmosphere that is at once idyllic and sinister, safe and oppressive. By never completely explaining the mystery away, Hadžihalilović lets us experience from within the anxiety and unease felt by the girls as they undergo the change from childhood to adolescence. Just like them, we are plunged into a world of visual and aural perceptions that we do not completely understand. Admirably capturing the way children apprehend the world and brilliantly evoking girls’ rites of passage, Innocence is a truly unique, magical experience.
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