Woman in the Dunes is the story of a Japanese entomologist who misses his bus while hunting for specimens among sand dunes, and is invited by the local village people to stay the night at a woman's house, prior to catching the bus in the morning. He is lowered into a pit via a rope ladder, and finds the woman living within the dunes in a ramshackle building. Here, he wakes up in the morning and finds the ladder is missing:
Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another) works with a great team here, including composer Tôru Takemitsu and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. There is a lot going on in the film, even if the plot itself seems almost stagnant. The entire setup is nonsense: a woman living in a sand dune, a trapped man joining her against his will. But it never feels like the setup matters in a realistic manner. We're watching an allegory. What's amazing, though, is that despite the enforced oddities of the setting, Teshigahara throughout convinces us that what we are seeing is real. The agonies of the scientist are no less upsetting because it's hard to imagine a person actually getting kept in a hut in a sand pit. Teshigahara always brings us back to the existential nightmare of the individual.
Capitalism itself comes under scrutiny, and again, the film doesn't make "real" sense but the critique is strong. It's confusing, but apparently the villagers can make money selling sand to a construction company. Don't think about it too hard ... instead, think about how the woman in the dunes (and her tenant) are trapped in the hut, performing endless, backbreaking work just so the construction company can make a profit.
And there's more. The sexual tension is alive, and both Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida do wonders with their parts ... they are a primary reason why the characters seem more real than allegorical. Meanwhile, Takemitsu's score is intrusive in the best ways.
I had put off seeing Woman in the Dunes for many years because it just seemed silly. But now that I have seen it, I can say that "silly" is the least important note about the movie. #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Here is a brief clip of Siskel and Ebert rhapsodizing over the film. It's ironic that they talk about how beautiful the movie is, given that the clip itself is just awful, but that's YouTube for you.