Director: Roman Polanski
Time: 1 hour and 34 minutes
What It Elicits: Tension in lonely settings, male competition, the cautionary fairy tale
Beware the handsome young wanderer, aloof and observant, invited into the life of a couple. Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), later turned into a movie starring Matt Damon, provides one of the more memorable recent instances of this type: the enigma onto whom projections can be cast, the protean performer slipping past comprehension, or, just maybe, the devil in disguise. Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water features just such a character, an unnamed young wanderer picked up by an older, well-to-do couple yachting on a desolate lake in Poland. (Whether artists like Highsmith, a writer with her own penchant for cruelty and self-destruction, and Polanski, whose own very real failings and transgressions have made him infamous, remain particularly drawn to characters of this sort for reasons personal I leave to the psychologists amongst us.) Our wanderer, invited to join the couple on their boat, labors under the watchful (and cruel) eye of Andrzej (the husband) and his attractive wife Krystyna, an object of desire for both men whose own ability to subtly shift power-relations emerges in ruthless fashion. The young man, with no boating experience, must quite literally learn the ropes and this process (sadistic, humiliating) leads to fraught final scenes in which the boundaries between games and violence erode and sex emerges its own form of power (as so often) in the competition. (There is a knife—its belongs to Andrzej and it is lost—and there is water, but you don’t need to be Freud to interpret this title.) The tight quarters in which the three characters interact adds to the claustrophobia underpinning conflict, an unmoored boat offering little escape from other people. Like many a work interrogating psychologies, its “meaning” remains fundamentally ambiguous—something which, alongside its refusal to comport with “social realist” dictates, meant it received limited distribution in Poland upon its release.
Polanski has always been a master of disturbed interpersonal frisson, addled minds, and the cruelty implicit in many human relationships. In Knife in the Water, his focus centers upon two men of different generations warring over the things men sometimes war over: authority, the approbation of women, control. Yet, Polanski’s brilliance rests in his camerawork and composition and the ability to convey tension through shots—an ever-present sky reinforcing the solitude of our three protagonists, the contrast of colors and light dividing characters from one another, the close-up continually constricting space, the low-angle camera which allows individuals to lord menacingly above the frame (and each other) while at the same time occluding our vision. The fable-like quality of the film, evinced through its intense focus on a circumscribed set of events and people inhabiting their own world without reference to the society or period in which they live—Polanski quite consciously avoided Communist posters which dotted the Polish landscape of the time—brings us back to those wandering strangers, reminiscent of various Grimm cautionary tales (themselves collected from ever-evolving peasant folklore traditions) which underscored a wariness with the outside world. Yet, just as in those folktales, the outsider teaches us much about ourselves: he may catalyze the action, but he rarely completes it.
Go Down The Rabbit Hole With:
Andrzej Wajda — Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Roman Polanski — Chinatown (1974)