Shôhei Imamura (1926-2006) was a director known for his dark themes and unique vision, and his 1964 black and white drama Unholy Desire a.k.a. Murderous Instincts is a great example of his cold style. The story deals with a middle-class housewife Sadako (Masumi Harukawa) who lives with her common-law librarian husband Riichi (Kô Nishimura) and his young son Masaru. After she is raped by a burglar Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) while being at home alone, she cannot even think about letting anyone know about what happened and initially intends to kill herself, but cannot bring herself to do it because of her love to Masaru. When the rapist keeps coming back claiming to love her and tries to convince her to run away with him, deep inside she starts questioning if her suffocating life with the emotionally cold, demanding and unfaithful Riichi is any better than what Hiraoko could offer.
The idea of a woman falling with love with her rapist may sound misogynistic at first, but I don't think the film ultimately carries such a message at all. The passive Sadako's past is so full of psychological mistreatment by her in-laws that it doesn't feel like much of a stretch to think that to her, rape is not necessarily worse than her life as it is. To me, the vibe the film sends regarding the connection between physical and emotional abuse and how they relate to love in general appears to be more pessimistic than outright misanthropic. Still, as cruel as the picture is, Imamura doesn't wallow in misery: Sadako is able to stay strong throughout her trials, even if she has occasional bouts of weakness amidst the contradicting forces pulling her apart. The very last shot, a close-up of Sadako's face after everything has seemingly been resolved, leaves the ending open for interpretation.
The instantly striking aspect of the film is Imamura's stunningly beautiful visual style. The black & white cinematography, stark shadows, wonderful scenery and the thoroughly planned mise en scène ensure that practically any frame of the film could be hanged up on a wall to be admired as an artistic photograph. The cramped interior scenes make use of tight close-ups and some unconventional camera angles, while the spacious outdoor set pieces allow the use of wide angles and tracking shots, for example during the climax on a snowy mountain or Sadako and Hiraoko's dramatic encounter on a moving train. The average shot-length is longer than in most modern films and the pacing always stays unhurried, making the film long but never tedious. The somewhat avant-garde music is also used sparingly but all the more effectively.
The recurring shots of Masaru's pet mice in a tiny cage with a hamster wheel are obvious symbols for Sadako's de facto imprisonment by her family and in-laws, but shots of passing trains also keep reappearing in the film all the way through. Perhaps they are hints of possibilities for her to get away from her life, either by jumping in front of a speeding train like she initially plans to, or by accepting Hiraoko's offer and leaving with him for Tokyo? In any case, the noisy, screechy sounds of locomotives certainly heighten the tension of the disturbing scenes of abuse that take place in the family's house right next to the train tracks. A couple of moments, such as Sadako watching a shirt flying in the wind above her, also add a dreamlike feel to the mix, softening the harsh realism a bit.
In a way the directorial style and the examined themes reminded me of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's awarded 2001 film The Piano Teacher: both films have a female protagonist who has grown up in an oppressive environment, but while Imamura's Sadako is unwillingly pulled into an abusive relationship, Haneke's Erika actively seeks men to mistreat her. Well, even if the comparison is a long shot, anyone interested in the nature of abuse should definitely give both films a look, as both are masterly created pieces of art. At the moment I have only seen a handful of Shôhei Imamura films, but I have been impressed by all of them. Still, Unholy Desire may be my favourite of them all; the wonderful visuals and the calm, observing handling of the controversial subject make the tale a highly enjoyable, if distressing, cinematic experience.
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