The Stranger Within a Woman

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Dan Sallitt

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Jan 25, 2010, 1:11:13 AM1/25/10
to NaruseRetro, meke...@kerpan.com
I gradually realized as I was watching this 1966 Naruse film that it
has exactly the same plot as Chabrol's 1971 JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT (JUST
BEFORE NIGHTFALL). Film history is no longer in its infancy, but when
two of the world's greatest directors can faithfully adapt the same
novel (Lebanese writer Edward Atiyah's 1951 THE THIN LINE) within five
years of each other without it being common knowledge, it's clear that
a great deal of groundwork remains before us. (Chris Fujiwara is the
only writer I could locate who has made the connection.)

Because Chabrol's adaptation is more assertive and stylized, I had
trouble at first processing Naruse's relatively splashless approach.
But I find myself admiring Naruse's take on the material more and more
as I think about it. His dramatic concept is simple, but consistently
applied: the unhappy protagonist Tashiro (Keiju Kobayashi, memorable
as Takamine's unglamorous husband in A WIFE'S HEART) is almost
inaccessible to us for most of the film, hiding his paralyzing guilt
behind a mask of silence. The supporting characters' dialogue moves
the film forward, even after we become certain that Tashiro is the
holder of the answers to our story questions. He can emerge from the
background only when his need for atonement begins to surface, and he
does not truly become articulate until that need becomes
irrepressible. Naruse matches this pure storytelling idea to a simple
and lucid style, maintaining a placid everyday tone, but jolting the
film forward with sudden, uneasy transitions that cut into and out of
scenes without allowing them to settle. Tashiro's increasingly daring
confessions are handled with little dramatic fanfare, often dropping
out of his mouth without warning - and the absence of drama is
appropriate, as the confessions afford him no lasting relief.

Chabrol's approach to the protagonist's dilemma has a tang of deadpan
Bunuelian humor, with society's representatives persistently refusing,
in the name of kindness and forgiveness, to give him the punishment
that he craves. And Chabrol obscures the end of the film rather than
the beginning, the better to convey his disturbance at the
bourgeoisie's ability to rid itself of troubling moral problems.
Naruse's simpler emotional tone seems at first less ambitious; but, by
persistence and directness, he achieves an unsettling focus on
Tashiro's anguish that Chabrol elides. His jagged transitions give
Tashiro no relief from repetitive dissimulation, until he and we can
no longer support the charade. There is no equivalent in the Chabrol
film for the terror of the scene where Tashiro arrives home at night,
after yet another confession that brings him no peace, and suddenly
vomits into the sink, with his wife Masako (Michiyo Aratama) rubbing
his back, able to deal only with his physical pain.

THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN contains some of Naruse's most beautiful
images, starting with the beautiful deep-focus opening shot that
tracks behind Tashiro on a busy city street - already signalling that
our hero cannot be introduced to us. Naruse is attentive to
atmosphere, to changes of weather, to the background sounds of each
location: the natural phenomena of the familiar world are the setting
that he imagines when he pictures hell.

One can perhaps argue that the film's treatment of its other
characters, especially Masako, who desperately needs to restore the
status quo at all costs, cannot be as interesting as its ominous
exterior view of Tashiro. Naruse reserves more conventional dramatic
cues for Masako's story, using slightly expressionistic compositions
and lighting to describe her state of mind as she gradually learns the
truth. Chabrol, by contrast, effortlessly finds mystery and
complexity in his protagonist's social environment, which is perhaps
his real subject.

There is some earlier discussion of the film in this thread:

http://groups.google.com/group/naruseretro/browse_thread/thread/8f04fc1c396009a5/9055f908162adb3c

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