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Knife in the Water

Director: Roman Polanski
Country: Poland
Year: 1962

“Polanski’s work might be seen as an attempt to map out the precise relationship between the contemporary world’s instability and tendency to violence and the individual’s increasing inability to overcome his isolation and locate some realm of meaning or value beyond himself.”
J. P. Telotte, FilmReference.com

BACKGROUND

Roman Polanski was born in Paris in 1933, the son of a Polish Jew and a Russian Catholic. The family moved back to Poland just before the outbreak of WWII. Roman’s father survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, but his mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Polanski himself managed to survive with the help of a Polish Roman Catholic farmer. After years of sleeping with the cows, the war ended and Roman was reunited with his father.

Roman joined the five-year program at the Łódź Film School, where ten-hour days were the norm, and students attended classes every day of the year except Christmas, and they had to walk uphill both ways, in the snow. During his school years, he appeared as an actor in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation, and made several widely-acclaimed short films. In 1962, at the age of 29 (!), he released his debut full-length film: Knife in the Water.

One contemporary critic described it thus: “The weapons are glances, words (very few and always exactly chosen). Polanski is a holy terror of intelligent restraint––detached, ironic, playful as a cat with a mouse, encompassing with ease his alternations of the deathly serious and the dead-pan comic.”

Although the Nazis were long gone, Poland was now under the sway of the Commies, and Polanski’s brooding tale of sexual competition and (possibly) attempted murder was denounced as lacking a socially redeeming message. No matter; Knife in the Water was a huge critical and commercial success in the Materialist West, nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 (the first time a Polish film had ever been nominated), and guaranteed Polanski the funding to make plenty more of his creepy, perverse movies.

What else? Polanski moved to Hollywood, became friends with Bruce Lee, his wife was murdered by the Manson family, and he raped a 13-year-old girl. We don’t take kindly to such goings-on here in the U.S. of A., so now he lives in France.

SYNOPSIS

A man and woman driving, their faces obscured. Titles appear over a jazzy porno score with sultry saxophone.

Only as the credits end do their faces become visible: a middle-aged rich European asshole (Andrzej) and his younger wife (Krystyna), sexy in librarian glasses. They look none too happy. They drive in tense silence. When they do speak, they argue, and we cannot hear them. They pick up a handsome (but apparently nameless) young hitchhiker, the catalyst for further argument, discord… AND MURDER! (not really)

Immediately, Young Hitchhiker (who I shall hereafter refer to as YH) begins to irritate the rich asshole; criticizing his driving, asking too many questions. The rich couple are headed to the marina, and, as required by the plot, YH is invited along for a weekend of sexual tension, male one-upmanship, and small-scale class warfare.

Love Boat soon will be
Making another run
The Love Boat promises
Something for everyone
Set a course for adventure,
Your mind on a new romance…

Later, it’s time for a snack. YH brings out some not-very-appetizing “black radishes” (?) and… you guessed it: a deadly-looking knife with which to eviscerate said radishes.

“Why do you carry that murderous thing?” asks Krystyna.

“A knife comes in handy,” replies YH. “Especially in the woods… Sailing’s easy. It’s when you hike that you need a knife.”

Andrzej mocks YH for his youth and his lack of sailing prowess, YH conspicuously yawns during one of Andrzej’s war stories, and it is so ON! Krystyna watches it all with detached amusement.

Andrzej, fearing loss of the upper hand, orders YH to coil some rope. This does not go over well with the blonde-haired hooligan, and he refuses. “If two men are on board, one’s the skipper!” hisses Andrzej. Tension is high. Krystyna adjusts her bikini.

When Andrzej charts a course for the becalmed waters of a canal, both men are forced to get out and tow the boat with ropes, which is a great opportunity for more chest-puffing and cock-comparing. Krystyna lazily shoos away a fly.

YH climbs the mast, and Andrzej threatens to kick his ass. Krystyna applies sunscreen.

YH pokes fun at Andrzej’s fancypants pot-carrying device, and Andrzej suggests that if YH is so smart maybe YH should try carrying the pot without the damn carrying device and see how he likes it and YH says fine maybe I will and he does, burning himself badly. “Stop being silly and eat your soup,” says Krystyna.

As expected in a film with two men and a sharp knife, a competitive round of mumblety-peg features prominently.

Krystyna floats languidly on an inflatable crocodile.

When Andrzej and Krystyna go for a swim, YH finds himself alone in the boat. The wind comes up and the boat sails away from the swimmers. Freak accident or half-hearted attempt at murder? We’re not sure. Only the herculean efforts of champion swimmer Andrzej (we have since found out that he writes for the Sporting News, further proving his manliness) reunite the couple with their boat.

Right on cue, the ship runs aground and a storm explodes overhead, forcing the uneasy trio to retreat belowdecks, the better to exacerbate the simmering tension. Undaunted, the two men find ever-more-ridiculous forms of competition: e.g. “I bet I can inflate this mattress faster than you!” Her back to the men, Krystyna conspicuously removes her swimsuit.

During a strange game of strip jackstraws (I was a little unclear on the rules), Andrzej listens to a boxing match on his iPod while Krystyna sings a song to YH. The lyrics are something about “love gone sour,” which I’m sure is entirely coincidental and not a commentary on her disastrous marriage to the perpetually scowling Andrzej. Also in the bizarre jackstraw-variant game, YH loses his much-fondled switchblade to Andrzej.

Early the next morning, Andrzej awakes to find his wife not beside him. He grabs for the knife. Instead of killing YH, though, he decides to just humiliate him by making him do menial boat-cleaning chores. “Where’s my knife?” demands YH. “Come and get it,” taunts Andrzej. I don’t want to give away too much, but the uh, Knife ends up, well, In The Water. After an awkward scuffle with Andrzej, so does YH, which is bad because he can’t swim (or so he claimed earlier).

“You’ve drowned him!” says Krystyna, finally roused from her middle-class anomie. “Phony! Clown! You only took him along to show off!”

During the ensuing marital meltdown, YH clings desperately to the hidden side of a nearby buoy.

When Andrzej dives in to search some more, YH makes it back to the boat (I guess he could swim, after all) just in time to see Krystyna starkers. But now where is Andrzej?

“You’re just like him,” Krystyna says contemptuously to the shivering YH, “only half his age and twice as dumb.”

“What do you know about life?” he retorts. “Just cafés, yachts and cars! Bet you’ve got a four-room apartment!” Zing!

Then there is some arguing about class and whatnot, though I was distracted by Krystyna’s bare legs and didn’t catch all of it. Krystyna and YH kiss hungrily. Andrzej still has not returned.

Krystyna pulls up to a lumber yard and sends YH on his way. She sails, by herself, back to the marina, where she finds Andrzej waiting.

She allows her husband to stew for a while before revealing the truth: YH is still alive. Andrzej does not believe her. “He’s alive,” she insists. “So much so, I cheated on you with him.” Still, Andrzej does not believe her. He stops the car in front of a road sign: “Police Station: 5km”

The engine idles. The car does not move.

And… fade out.

WHAT I LIKED

This is Polanski’s first film! It was released when Polanski was only 29! And yet, all of the hallmarks are there: simmering discord, creeping unease, social alienation, a gradually-increasing threat which may be real or imagined, all captured with cool detachment and black humor.

The most impressive thing about Knife in the Water is that it does so much with so very little. There are only three characters, in a limited space, and there isn’t much in the way of action, by which I mean: There are no helicopters, sharks, or shoulder-mounted plasma cannons. Tension simmers from the first frame to the last, but never erupts in quite the way you expect (or hope for). As the essay in the Janus book says, “Knife in the Water stunned audiences by eliciting its responses from constantly thwarted expectations… The film is nerve-wracking, but why? A threat lingers in the air… but where does it originate?”

All of the acting is excellent. Although Jolanta Umecka isn’t given much to do as Krystyna, she plays the final scenes, when she is finally (a)roused, with a wicked electricity. Leon Niemczyk is the embodiment of a rich, tanned, physically fit, jet-setting European businessman or politician, seething with contempt for the lower classes, flaunting his wealth, reeking of entitlement. And Zygmunt Malanowicz is note-perfect as Young Hitchhiker; painfully immature, alternately swaggering and wounded, boastful and then frightened. Every movement, every nuance of his delivery, every bit of business, rings true.

Finally, there is the cinematography, which is never flashy but which always finds an interesting way to frame a shot in the limited confines of the boat. As alliances and power shift throughout the film, the camera shows us this by framing one character in the claustrophobic foreground, and the other two characters aligned in the background.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH

There were moments when the jazzy bass/piano/saxophone score seemed wildly inappropriate, be-bopping along happily while the film is trying to ratchet up the tension. I’m sure this was a stylistic choice by the director, but it didn’t work for me.

For much of the film, Krystyna is largely an attractive but useless spectator to the increasingly dangerous competition of the men. I’m sure part of this was intentional on Polanski’s part, but it also felt as if he just didn’t know what to do with her, didn’t know what a woman might say under those circumstances.

SHOULD YOU SEE IT?

Fans of Polanski in general: Yes. Enjoy an artfully mounted, slow-burning thriller and won’t be disappointed if no automatic weapons fire is exchanged? Yes. If the above description sounds interesting, but you’d be more interested if Knife in the Water featured flare-gun shootouts, slo-mo shots of children flying through car windshields, and naked Nicole Kidman: rent Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm instead. Actually, rent Dead Calm anyway. Knife in the Water is a better film, but Dead Calm is a hoot.

Next: The Lady Vanishes

One Comment

  1. It’s amazing what missing two minutes can do to you when you’re watching a film….

    Every time I pop in a DVD I have to suffer through the opening FBI warning, possibly the title of the manufacturer of the DVD, maybe the production company, ads about not stealing the movie, previews, etc. I will say up front, right now, in front of God and everyone: I’M SICK AND TIRED OF THOSE! Granted I can often either fast-forward through them, or I can skip them by pushing the various buttons on my remote. Sometimes the disc will allow me to do it, sometimes I just have to sit and suffer through the Interpol warning.

    When I finally make it to the film, then I usually fast forward through the credits as 95% of the time nothing of interest is happening.

    With “Knife in the Water” (from now on “KIW”) I did the same thing. Credits roll – time to fast-forward. Funny thing, though, is that I couldn’t. It was as if the DVD manufacturer said: “No, fella, you can’t fast-forward, fast-rewind, you’re stuck you SOB. You gotta WATCH IT!” So, okay, weird anomaly and off I go into this film.

    The film is almost deceptively simple in its story telling. I, myself, am trying to write a script about a handful of soldiers in the Civil War and I keep thinking: “Oh, I need a “b” story. Oh, I need to break it out more. Can I keep the conflict up by just having them walk down a path? A road? What if I have someone follow them?” I’m so damn concerned with the conflict, I’m not taking into account the STORY.

    And, again, “KIW” is a simple story: A older business man (wealthy journalist from the Netflix wrapper) and his young (hot) wife almost run down a hitch-hiker (a young Rutger Hauer type). After a few choice words the man throws the guy in the back of the car and takes him to the marina. Instead of letting him go (and a bit of foreshadowing on the string of “windshield wiper thefts” (no, I’m not kidding) – they invite the stranger onto the boat.

    It isn’t long before they’re both strutting around like roosters with their plumage showing attempting to swing the attention of the fair gal. Stories are told, pick-up-sticks are played, boxing matches are listened to and a knife gets thrown about. Even though the young man doesn’t seem to know much about boats (and he lies about being able to swim), he’s able to climb up rigging and he knows what a “foc’sicle” (sic?) is – I have no idea. He also has a big ass knife (“BAK”).

    As the pissing contests continue there is an attraction between the young wife and the young stranger but he equips himself well with his gallivanting around and learning boating skills and playing with his “BAK.”

    As I’m watching this I know, you know, we ALL KNOW that something is going to happen. It just HAS to happen. At any moment. Someone will get stabbed, blood will spill, death will reign. It’ll be cool.

    But they all seem to get along just fine until the inevitable pissing match begins and punches get thrown and young man’s “BAK” gets dropped in the water and then he gets thrown in, too.

    Going on what was said earlier about young Rutger Hauer type not being able to swim – they dive in after him but can’t find him (a bouy hides our blond boy wonder). Thinking that he has drowned, the older man swims to shore to call the police and arrange a search party while the hot young wife sails about looking for the young man. When he swims to the boat (He can swim after all! Liar-liar pants on fire!) he observes her nekkid body and before you can say “avast ye matey” they’re making love like wild hyenas. Shot in a way that is so close-up as to make me want to turn away.

    Then…I had to shut off my DVD player and stop watching for a little while. Well, the disc had just gotten to chapter 13 (or so I thought) and I was 1 hr and 20 minutes in and what could I possibly miss. A few hours later I turned on the DVD player and found that chapter 13 actually started about 1:13 minutes and I didn’t want to watch the past 7 or 8 minutes AGAIN (even though she is nekkid) but I couldn’t fast-forward either. So I bounced to chapter 14 which was 1:23 minutes in and what could I have missed in that 2 or 3 minutes. Answer: A HELLUVALOT!

    When I bounced to Chapter 14 her husband stood on the dock waiting for her. Though he had swum to shore, he hadn’t bothered to call the police and he was “naked” as he told her, didn’t have the keys and GOD-A-MIGHTY (!) the damn windshield wipers had been stolen. So…where was he? Where did Rutger Hauer Type go? I know, he’s going to bust out any moment and kick old guy’s ass. He’s going to swim to shore and run away. He’s hiding in the foc’scle! He’s going to do…something…right? Well…I didn’t see him again and knew that in those 2 or 3 minutes SOMETHING must have happened.

    So at work, I sat down and watched those three minutes to see where, after making-love and on their way back to shore, she slows the boat down and lets him off…that’s it.

    Cut to the docks and the aforementioned theft of the windshield wipers and the hook up of the husband and wife.

    They get into the car and the wife tells him exactly what happens. The blond boy hid by the buoy, swam to the boat, made mad passionate love to her and she let him go. Of course the husband doesn’t believe her. Assumes she’s making up a story to tell the cops, or something. Is even shocked that she would joke about something like that – because it’s totally unbelievable that she’d bump uglies with a Rutger Hauer type while he’s such a strapping stud.

    As they leave the Marina a sign pointing to the police station 5km away gives them pause. Do they go to the police and tell their story? Do they go home and forget all about the boy? What do they do? Roman Polanski does the right thing and freezes on the car at the crossroads.

    What I liked:

    I continue to be amazed at how enthralled I can be in such simple stories with no huge cast of characters, no special effects, little (or no) nudity, etc. The film created a wonderfully suspenseful environment on a very small boat.

    The acting was good, not great and the wealthy journalist came off more as dork than he probably should have.

    The music score was great.

    Polanski’s use of camerawork was excellent. His use of deep-focus (person directly in front of the camera is in focus as is the person 20 feet away) was stellar but not always perfect.

    What I didn’t like:

    Like I said before, the acting could have been better. I would have liked to have seen a bit more interaction between husband and wife before they picked up the hitch-hiker to see if there is any sort of character arc. Same with the strange boy.

    I have to say I’m really tired of foreign films that dub every single voice, sound, sound effect. Granted, it would be EXTREMELY difficult to film on a 25 foot sail boat with water lapping, wind blowing, motorboat going by, etc. But the dialogue and all the sound-effects are dubbed through out the film always leaving everything to just be slightly “off” in my opinon.

    Bottom line:

    Good little suspenseful thriller. Amazing what you can do in one location with three actors.

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