The Dunes are alive with the sound of music

woman_in_the_dunes_poster.jpgThe score of Woman in the Dunes is haunting. Dissonant, staccato aural elements insure that tone of the film never drifts far from a sense of peril or the inescapable hopelessness of Niki’s predicament and a life engulfed with insurmountable sand. The score in Dunes, however, plays a more sophisticated role than that of simple a tonal device. Teshigahara does not merely employ sound as an appropriately matched accompaniment to accent or enhance the visible drama. Rather, music functions as an independent player; it contains unique information not visually available and it redefines the visual story, rather than merely supplementing it. The more direct a film is required to be in the enunciation of its themes, the more it risks perjuring those themes itself (Explicitly stated meanings are vulnerable to the slightest missteps in presentation or interpretation), and the more it sacrifices the longevity that thematic ambiguity provides. Therefore, the disjunction of non-diegetic sound and the visual narrative provides Teshigahara an extended toolset for the construction and fortification of a more mature, more durable motif.

Threatening music begins in the title sequence, and we are immediately shown images of sand at various zooms, followed by Niki travelling through the sand. From the outset, the audience is meant to understand sand as a menacing force. If the tone of our introduction to sand does not immediately characterize it as diabolical, it at least definitively establishes the overwhelming potency of the stuff. Next, Niki is hiking through the Dunes, accompanied by a score that continues to be ominous. Already, Teshigahara is using music to force a re-interpretation of the visual information provided. With the score absent, the audience would have no sense of Niki’s peril, and the understanding of this scene would be completely different, and thus the non-diegetic sound proves itself an integral player rather than a peripheral enhancement. Like a wordless narrator, the score is describing for the viewers how we should understand the sand, and reframing an entomological excursion as a descent away from civilization; these two functions will remain consistent throughout the film. Teshigahara allots the score sparingly, a strategy that enhances the sense of isolation in the scenes accompanied only by the sounds of swishing sand and rushing wind, but when the score does reappear, it will always tell one of these same two stories: to remind the audience of the devilish omnipotence of the sand, or to signify further progress in the metamorphosis (descent) of Niki.

As Niki begins his eternity in the sand pit, the score reappears with sporadic flourishes, frequently to identify a milestone in Niki’s devolutionary journey. The music reaches climaxes in intensity when he first realizes he is trapped, when he first embraces the woman sexually, and in the moments of desperation when he must give in to his need for water. In the case of the sexual encounter, there is the problem of tonal disjunction. This can be solved by charting this case in course with the other two. The encounter then must be seen as a significant milestone in Niki’s transition. The disjunction informs the audience that they should not be taking the drama merely at face-value, but that, like in the scenes where Niki’s fate is more literally realized, here also his new existence is being created, only less visibly. Because a film cannot provide a direct window into the protagonist’s psyche, a filmmaker must provide manifest hints to indicate externally the internal process. For the evolution of a character, the transmogrifying force is generally identified, but the viewer must notice a difference in this series of checkpoints to understand the change, and they must interpolate these points of detail in order to elucidate the real dynamics of the transformation. Woman in the Dunes is an existential movie with overtones of nothingness, isolation—the absurdity of futile civilized constructions juxtaposed against an equally Sisyphusian, but simpler existence. Overtly stating the conditions of the characters would be inconsistent with the themes and aesthetics of such a movie. Therefore, the score in Dunes, specifically the musical-visual disjunction, can be explained as a creative device employed to maintain the film’s philosophic integrity—a method of furthering the narrative without violating its own aesthetic.

In the climactic scene where the villagers demand to view the couple together, the music is distinct. Not dissonant and haunting, it is rhythmic and warlike. The new sounds should be taken as an indication that the period of metamorphosis is reaching conclusion. This is a conflictual moment, reflected in the aggressive, ritual beat of the drums, where all of the various levels of individual and society are brought to ceremonious battle within Niki. The music explains that this is not another moment of forced adaptation , not another instance of the oppression of the sand. This is Niki’s moment of truth, where the vestiges of his previous self will make their last stand and be destroyed, and a new version of Niki, an existential reduction his previous self, will be reborn and baptized to the ritual beat of the drums.

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