The Japanese director Hiroshi Teshiguhara only made seven feature films and four of these were collaborations with the avant garde novelist Kobo Abe and the modernist composer Turo Takemitsu. Their best-known film in the West is the haunting "Woman of the Dunes" (1964), a Palme d'or winner at Cannes and an Academy Award nominee, but this movie is even more remarkable. There is so much going on and so many different ideas being thrown at the viewer that it would take more than one viewing to try to make sense of the existential whole.
The basic story concerns a researcher whose face has been burned off in a laboratory experiment and who faces the world, including his wife, heavily bandaged. He meets a doctor/psychiatrist who is able to construct a life-like mask based on the face of a young man who has been paid for a cast to be taken; soon this new face begins to exert its pull on its wearer, creating a new personality to go with it. He rents an apartment to use for his parallel life (having previously looked at one in the same building as the masked man), and only the landlord's subnormal daughter can sense that the two are the same man. One of his main desires for his new face is to seduce his wife who has previously rejected his sexual overtures, which he proceeds to do wishing to expose her as a slut, but it does seem apparent that she too knew all along that the young, handsome stranger was in fact her husband. Thereafter, he becomes more and more the new persona, one which the psychiatrist can no longer control and who seems to be losing all moral ties to his old life.
While all this is going on the director moves in and out of a sub-plot concerning a beautiful but scarred young girl who is trying to live with her facial disfigurement, the result of the atom bomb at Nagasaki, and her interaction with the inmates of a mental institution where she apears to live and her need for physical love with her own brother. Both stories are filmed in an impressionistic way which must be seen to be believed with much of the action filmed through laboratory vials and other distorting screens and devices. Occasionally images appear which seem to have no immediate relationship to either story, like a bed floating above the city or a room seen in the distance which appears to be full of hair. And there is an eerie bit toward the end as the protagonists stroll through a crowd of faceless folk.
I somehow feel that I have not done justice to this film which doesn't easily fall into any genre category. It is not quite horror or sci-fi or a mad-scientist flick, but it touches on all of these. Most of all it is a wonderfully filmed philosophic reflection on how our appearance affects our behaviour and how the veneer of our rationality can so easily crumble.