By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Woman in the Dunes,” part of the Criterion Collection’s Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara]
Call it art film nostalgia, but every newly forgotten, newly resurrected “classic” from the post-Truman era of international cinema still looks as bold, brave and original as the next, and is often more telling and pertinent than the frequently lugubrious art films of today. The new Criterion box of films by Japanese modernist Hiroshi Teshigahara proves the point, and not just with the justly hallowed, yet today mostly forgotten “Woman in the Dunes” (1964). Exactly the sort of confrontationally metaphoric movie that got heads buzzing in the day, “Woman” is both fearsomely tactile and abstract, with an ideogram for a plot: an unsuspecting entomologist (Eiji Okada) becomes trapped in an enormous dune pit and is kept there by a pack of mysterious villagers. In the pit with him, dumbly going about the Sisyphean task of shoveling away the sand that perpetually threatens to engulf them both, is a servile woman living in a driftwood shack; she is essentially the perpetual-motion device that prevents the villagers’ home from being buried, and he is her designated helpmate.
The harrowing dead-end existentialism belonged to avant-garde novelist/scripter Kobo Abe, who played Emeric Pressburger to Teshigahara’s Michael Powell with three more outlandish concepts/storylines, two included here. “Pitfall” (1962), never released in this country, was Teshigahara’s feature debut after a decade of short documentaries, and it’s just as startling in its concept and its priorities as the film that famously followed. A miner and his son, escaping from slave-like employment, wander into the remains of a deunionized coal-mining town, followed by a company assassin and soon faced with the town’s population of company-murdered ghosts. The melodrama that plays out is strictly pro-labor and anti-corporate in ways with which any nation’s history including ours can sympathize, but with the extra added frisson provided by angry, meddling ghosts and more than a few puzzling doppelgangers. By itself, the ghost town and the surrounding mountainsides offer existentialist fuel aplenty, all of it restlessly, inventively shot by Teshigahara as if this were his first film and last it is by a substantial nose the most impressive film debut of 1962, beating out, I dare say, even Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.”
The third film is the intensely futurist “The Face of Another” (1966), in which Japanese New Wave icon Tatsuya Nakadai plays a burned man with psychotic issues who, once he’s given a temporary prosthetic face, constructs a new identity and suspiciously sets about seducing his own wife. Gimmickry and gadgetry are all but subsumed by Teshigahara and Abe’s philosophical concerns about identity, individualism and perception, as well as by a monstrous cataract of modernist design (authored by architect Arata Isozaki and Masao Yamazaki). The film is a gender-protagonist spin-around from Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” two years earlier Teshigahara views obsession from the inside out, and the results are discomfiting and, as always, masterfully photographed by DP Hiroshi Segawa. The DVD box set comes with a thick battery of critical readings (mostly from Canadian crit James Quandt, in essay form and in a video piece), interviews, analytical docs and four of Teshigahara’s gorgeous early shorts, starting with 1953’s “Hokusai.”
Critics and artists are the merest puppets in the new Canadian meta-feature “Missing Victor Pellerin,” manufactured by (and featuring) a luscious rookie named Sophie Deraspe, though given the film itself we can’t be faulted for being suspicious of her identity and of whom the filmmaker(s) really is/are. First, the film appears to be a documentary about a 1990s Quebec art world phenomenon: a mysterious painter self-named Victor Pellerin appeared on the scene, got famous and wealthy, and then suddenly recalled all of his pictures, burned them and disappeared. Alright, but the film follows Pellerin’s fading circle theater director/nicotine glutton Eudore Belzile, Pellerin’s sister and ex-girlfriend, various gallery owners, writers and naysaying painter compatriots with such intimacy and sometimes shocking frankness that soon you suspect what Deraspe (or whomever) admits in the end credits: that although Pellerin is real, the entire film was scripted.
Maybe: you can’t find any mention of Pellerin on the Net that doesn’t involve the film, and even the dope escapade in which his circle of ex-friends, and Deraspe, indulge on camera a “submarine” syringe application of belladonna to the back of the neck has been wholly unheard of elsewhere. (And of course we never see any of Pellerin’s art ostensibly, it’s all gone.) As the narrative progresses and Pellerin is revealed to be wanted for forgery by the Canadian authorities (the supercilious art detective makes ridiculous goo-goo eyes at Deraspe during his interview), the entire cast undergoes a kind of psychological striptease, and we end up in Colombia, no closer to knowing Pellerin’s whereabouts than when we began. What the hell happened? The film is apparently fiction, but it’s part of the point that we’ll never know how much, or what kind, or whether any of our categories matter all questions that control the house of cards that is the international art sphere. “Missing Victor Pellerin” isn’t a hoax, or a documentary, or a mockumentary it’s something for which we have no proper name, a kind of speculative tale told in non-fiction form, like a Borges story. Maybe.
Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara (Criterion) will be available on DVD on July 10th; “Missing Victor Pellerin” (Atopia) is now available on DVD.