Monday, September 04, 2006

Knife in the Water

This Wikipedia entry for the Roman Polanski film Knife in the Water informs me that some people believe it to be the "second best first film ever" after Citizen Kane. I don't know if I agree. It is certainly a very well crafted and extremely subtle psychological thriller. Perhaps a little too subtle, because at the end it left me slightly underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting a more dramatic payoff in the denouement.
The structure of the film is extremely tight. There are only three characters and Polanski isolates them from the rest of the world and observes how they behave for just twenty four hours. What he sees and what he shows us is I think quite familiar to all of us, because it is very true. It is about how the presence of a sexually attractive woman provokes a man to advertise his masculinity by showing his confidence and his abilitity to indulge in aggression, sometimes even violence. And if he is competing for the female attention with other males it is even easier because he can then win by mocking his competitors! It all sounds very base, uncivilized and indeed very Darwinian but Polanski thinks it explains normal human behaviour very well (he is right of course).

The film starts with a couple going to spend a day sailing on some lake in Poland. They give lift to a young hitchhiker on the way and the man then invites him to join him for sailing, perhaps for helping him with the paraphernelia of sailing or perhaps for just giving him a chance to show his skill and manliness before his much younger wife. Soon a subtle psychological warfare between the two men ensues. The young man is clumsy and doesn't have a clue about sailing but he can play with his knife pretty well. The girl watches the two with amusement (indeed she must have seen it before!). Soon things get more dire but the film never manages to achieve a good climax of which it was hinting at all along.

The most impressive aspect of the film was its visual expressiveness. It is brilliantly shot in what must be extremely difficult conditions. The action is limited to the boat for the entire period and to just the three characters and yet the film never manages to become less interesting. Also the acting is quite ordinary, specially the girl who is absolutely clueless about what to do. Polanski mentions this in the accompanying interview too. But actually I think it helps in creating her character. Also she has a great presence bustling with sexual energy. Also it is worth noticing how Polanski makes her shed her hair style, glasses and other trappings and reveal her more sexual side as the film progresses which contributes to the creation of sexual tension.

Polanski explored similar themes of how we indulge in powerplay and casual fascism in our everyday relationships in his bleak portait of modern society, The Tenant, which is also a masterpiece of psychological horror. His other two movies in the "Apartment Horror" series, Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby are my favourites too.

Here is an article on Knife in the Water from the criterion website. Another review and more stills from the movie here.

There are some very good articles on The Tenant. Here is one from kinoeye website and here is another. An interview with Polanski and another article which says:"...Polanski's films depict a Godless world in which the good do not always triumph, the outsider is always persecuted and the innocent is always abused."


Jabberwock said...

I was slightly underwhelmed by Knife in the Water too. Want to write about a couple of Polanski films like Repulsion and Macbeth, but have to re-watch them first. Also The Tenant, which is one of the great underappreciated-and-subsequently-cult films.

Alok said...

Do watch and write about it. Will look forward to your post. I haven't seen Macbeth yet. Have heard it is a very "bloody" adaptation! My neighbourhood library has its DVD, will check out soon.

The Tenant and Repulsion curiously remain vastly undercelebrated. The two movies are certainly better than Rosemary's Baby which is more famous. May be because he made it in hollywood.