Criterion film a day, day 6: Polanski’s “Knife in the Water”–Will it be sunk by cliche? Water pun!

Hooray! I’m finally in the 60s–which I can actually be excited about because my parents were a little bit too young to dabble in things like free love and hirsute nudity. As for film, I feel like Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water  film is the first that is firmly past the looming shadow of World War II, which isn’t too say its a good film: The characters are odious and drawn from an obviously symbolic and simplistic well.

The film features three characters on a sailboat: Andrzej and Krystyna are a married couple edging towards middle age and the Hiker, an unnamed guy who they picked up hitchhiking on the way.

Andrzej is the patriarchal intellectual, a writer who is condescending, commandeering and a show-off. His wife, Krystyna, proves to be by far the most intelligent of the three and from her submissive place quietly manipulates her husband, or, by turns, ignores him. The Hiker is meant to be Andrzej’s counterpoint, a young, confident man given to his own boasts, but lacking the patience or cleverness of a more mature person.

The film consists of them sailing around, and Andrzej and the Hiker bickering and competing, with things like holding burning pots or climbing up the mast, or who can inflate an air mattress sooner, all presumably to win the affections or Krystyna. On the surface its the intellectual vs. the anti-intellectual.

On this plane, the film is mediocre, I think, and the first of the Criterion collection that did not grip me the whole way through. It is saved by two really clever plots points:

Despite their superficial differences, Andrzej and the Hiker gradually merge to become the same character. The Hiker isn’t as dumb as he looks, and Andrzej, despite his dedication to showing off as the commandeering skipper and a man of nature, really is quite competent outside (and in a fight). As their competition grows more ridiculous, the distinction between them grows smaller. Polanski slowly disengages from a boring “intellectual vs. nature-man” argument and delves a little bit deeper into the male psyche at different ages.

Krystyna plays no small role in this–mocking both of them, and putting each in their place, noting at one point to the Hiker (I paraphrase), “We’ve all been in your place, Andrzej too, and really though you feign to disdain him, you want to be him”.

In case you didn’t notice my transition, this brings me really nicely into my second plot point of interest: the role of Krystyna. By Polanski’s camera, her body is very obviously objectified (as are the other two bodies in the film), and often appears in a scene to unbalance it. As much as the cameras can’t help gazing sideways at her in various states of undress, either can the characters.

Without giving away too much, it becomes increasingly clear that her silence isn’t born out of fear or submission to her husband, but more out of annoyance and a chosen aloofness to his masculine peacocking. She also steps in as a role model for the young HIker, correcting him and offering an astute view on the conflict between the two of them. She is also the most eager to diffuse the situation, and proves to be the most intelligent, mature and comfortable with herself of the three characters. She never portrays the inconfident desperation of the two men.

In the climactic scene, in which the hiker falls out of the boat and she fears that he has drowned (her husband believes he was lying about not being able to swim), she is the first to jump into the water to try and save him, before turning angrily on her husband and demanding that he take responsibility for what he has done.

I don’t want to give away what happens in the plot next, because the scenes after this one make the entire film, but there is a unique paradox when they get back to shore, and Krystyna finally comes out as a fully forced character, able to use her husband’s blind spot to get what she wants and allow him, foolishly, to continue to think he is in control as you watch her involvement in the marriage (which was always met by indifference) dissolve into a slightly more active, but still aloof hostility.

This final character development is a brilliant turn, and makes her one of the more fascinating and complex characters I’ve come across. The beginning of the film drags, to be sure, but Polanski’s subtle examinations into their marriage and increasing focus on her psychology makes the final scene a tense, exciting and illuminating one. Worth the watch.

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About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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