One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards a few days away, we look back at some of the unlikeliest Oscar nominees, picking a different major category every day.
Now that the Academy nominates between five and 10 movies for Best Picture every year, there are rarely any surprises in the adjacent Best Director roster; only once this decade has a filmmaker (Bennett Miller) scored a nomination despite his film (Foxcatcher) being left out of the Picture race. But back when only five movies competed for the top prize, complete overlap between the two categories wasn’t as inevitable. In its prouder moments, the directing branch of the Academy would smuggle some real auteurs into its lineup, from American mavericks like John Cassavetes, David Lynch, and Spike Jonze to the same class of international visionaries that would also pick up the occasional Screenplay nomination. Of these curveballs, none was quite as curvy, however, as the Best Director nomination that Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara received for Woman In The Dunes, a film that—to put it mildly—doesn’t fit the conventional description of “Oscar-friendly.”
Trivia nerds will note that Teshigahara was the first person of Asian descent to compete for Best Director. (Sadly, that number hasn’t shot up much in the half century since; Ang Lee received three of the other five nominations.) Even more anomalously for an Oscar nominee, Teshigahara is also traditionally categorized as an avant-garde filmmaker—a label that Woman In The Dunes bears out, even as it follows a fairly simple narrative path. The plot is primal allegory: An insect-enthused schoolteacher (Eiji Okada) arrives at a remote village to study a rare species of beetle, but ends up staying for the night with a widow (Kyōko Kishida) who lives in a sand quarry. When he tries to leave the next morning, the man discovers that the rope ladder he used to descend into the pit has been removed, the dunes are too unstable to climb, and the villagers have their hearts set on him marrying his lonely host, whose harvesting of sand somehow fuels the local economy.
It’s a mysterious reverie of a film, amenable to multiple interpretations. There’s a case to be made that Teshigahara is tapping into a powerful urge to flee the complications of modern life; Okada’s flummoxed teacher complains early on about all the documents he has to keep track of in Tokyo, only to see his life reduced to a primitive survival routine: clear away the sand, wait for the delivery of water and rations. Another way to look at the dreamlike story is as a parable about the siren call of domesticity, in which a bachelor stumbles into a quasi-romantic arrangement, attempts for a while to reassert his independence, and then slowly begins to accept his circumstances. Maybe, on the other hand, it’s just an elaborate gaslight scenario, pitting a stubborn rationalist against an irrational situation, until he begins to sink into a granular pool of madness.
Centered around an image of open-ended metaphoric potential—a house flanked on all sides by pale walls of sand—Woman In The Dunes resists any one definitive reading. It’s that ambiguity that places it so far outside of the normal Oscar wheelhouse; rarely has the Academy embraced such borderline abstraction, before or since. Of course, voters could have just been responding to the movie’s haunting, sometimes breathtaking imagery: bare flesh, caked with sand and then sensually scrubbed clean; faces caught in rippling reflection or concealed behind ornate masks; the dunes themselves, collapsing in miniature avalanches of dust. Direct a film well enough and maybe people won’t care that it doesn’t hold your hand.
Availability: Woman In The Dunes is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and can be obtained from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also available to rent or purchase on Amazon and is currently streaming on FilmStruck.