May 10, 2010

0 Knife in the Water (1962)

Country: Poland
Director: Roman Polanski

In 1961 Roman Polanski made the last of his nine short films, a 10-minute long silent called Mammals. In the film two men in a snowy wilderness compete to see who will ride on, and who will pull, the sled carrying their belongings. Mammals—a slyly ambiguous black comedy that can be interpreted alternatively as a Marxist satire on capitalist exploitation of workers or as an observation that the exploitative impulse is an innate human characteristic which can never be completely subdued—is reduced to its essential elements: two men, one sled, and vast expanses of snow. Knife in the Water, Polanksi's first full-length feature made the next year, is again reduced to essentials: two men and a woman, one sailboat, and vast expanses of water. Again the movie is about competitive conflict between its characters.

The film begins with a thirtyish man and woman driving down a country road bickering. So involved in their argument are the couple that they nearly run over a young hitchhiker who in desperation has resorted to standing in the middle of the road to get someone to stop. The driver's rage at the hitchhiker's brazenness soon turns to apparent friendliness when he invites the hitchhiker to accompany him and his wife on an overnight excursion on a nearby lake in their sailboat. No sooner are they on the boat than Andrzej, the older man, begins ordering the boy around, telling him, "If two men are on board, one's the skipper." "Or the drill sergeant," retorts the boy, who quickly catches on that Andrzej is playing mind games with him but decides to go along for the ride anyway. What follows is an hour and a half of sometimes civil, sometimes hostile antagonism between the two as each tries to outwit and dominate the other—an extended male pissing contest on a sailboat.

There are many areas of conflict between the two. Andrzej is a writer who has enjoyed some material success, as his ownership of a car and boat in 1962 communist Poland attests. The younger man is an impoverished student who criticizes the older man's preoccupation with success and acquisition. The writer's life is one of middle-aged regimentation; he has planned exactly one day and night on the lake before returning to town. The student's life is one of youthful spontaneity; he has simply taken off for the weekend on an unplanned adventure. Most contentious of all is the presence of the wife, Krystyna. Has her husband invited the student to come sailing with them in an exhibitionistic desire for an audience to their rather theatrical bickering, à la Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Has Krystyna gone along with his impulsive gesture because she sees the young man's obvious sexual interest in her as a possible weapon to use against her husband?

Polanski keeps the psychodrama pumping steadily throughout the entire movie, the compact plot constantly taking unexpected turns and frequently veering into dark humor. But equally fascinating is the film's visual virtuosity. From the moment it opens—with the couple photographed through the windshield of the car, the passing trees reflected in the windshield and superimposed on them as they argue—we are aware that this is going to be a film whose images alone will hold our attention. I can't say with certainty that this is the first time this kind of shot was ever used, although it is the earliest example I can think of, but I do know that I've seen it duplicated in countless later movies and even television programs. With much of the first half of the film taking place on the deck of the sailboat, and much of the second half in the even more confined setting below deck, Polanski continually devises imaginative ways to show the spatially limited action, often posing his actors in tableau-like compositions but keeping the film moving with rapid cutting between shots. The film is also filled with less functional compositions of breathtaking abstract beauty. In Knife in the Water Polanski achieves the kind of artful integration of narrative and image that only the most masterful filmmakers are capable of.

One of the film's most striking compositions—a secular icon?

Few film directors have begun their careers as auspiciously as the 29-year old Polanski with Knife in the Water, creating a masterpiece their first time out—Orson Welles, John Huston, Satyajit Ray, and François Truffaut immediately come to mind. Even given Polanski's impressive later career, Knife in the Water is still one of his best movies and one of the key European art films of the 1960s. (The movie received an Oscar nomination as best foreign language film of 1963 but lost to Fellini's .) Visually fascinating and emotionally lacerating, it is the product of a brilliant young filmmaker on the verge of an illustrious career.


Post a Comment