Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Knife in the Water

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

KNIFE IN THE WATER

7/10

Noz w wodzie : Poland 1962 : Roman POLANSKI : 94 mins

A feuding couple – fortyish-but-virile sportswriter Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and his younger wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are heading to a lakeside marina for a long day’s yachting. En route, they pick up a reckless young hitch-hiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) who joins them on the lake. The hitch-hiker proves a less than competent sailor, despite Andrzej’s attempts to (literally) show him the ropes. As the hours pass, unspoken tensions between the men – generational, class, sexual – slowly approach breaking-point.

After a handful of acclaimed shorts, Polanski burst onto the world cinema scene with this debut feature. Nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar, it paved the way for his departure to Britain where he made two more black-and-white films: Repulsion (1965) and Cul de Sac (1966). Like those pair, Knife in the Water is deliberately abrasive – as their unwelcoming titles suggest, Polanski is out to challenge rather than pander to audience expectations. The aim is to keep us on edge, never allowing us to settle into a cosy film-watching mode.

In each instance, the narrative and geographical focus is remarkably tight: most of Repulsion takes place within a single London flat; Cul de Sac seldom ventures beyond the confines of Holy Island; the drama of Knife in the Water unfolds on a small yacht. And the main characters generally don’t respond well to this confinement – Repulsion‘s isolated Catherine Deneuve quickly loses her grasp on reality; the fragile marriage of Cul de Sac‘s Donald Pleasance and Francoise Dorleac shatters when their territory is invaded by hostile gangster Lionel Stander.

Similarly, Knife in the Water plays out as a terse infidelity-nightmare, with Andrzej and Krystyna constantly hovering on the brink of an all-out row: a simmering dysfunction which the Young Man’s presence eventually brings to a head. Though moments of black comedy are to be found in all three films – Cul de Sac especially – these are not, on the whole, comfortable experiences for the viewer.

With Knife in the Water, however, Polanski and his screenwriting collaborators (Jakub Goldberg, Jerzy Skolimowski) take this discomfort a little too far. The three characters – and we never see anyone else – are annoying to various degrees: an annoyance is felt just as keenly by the viewer as it is by the characters themselves. A further level of irritation is added by Krzysztof Komeda’s gratingly repetitive, incongruously jazzy score – which often (deliberately) seems to belong to a different film altogether.

And although north-east Poland’s expansive Mazury Lakes provide a striking natural backdrop for Jerzy Lipman’s (often hand-held) cinematography, light-levels are invariably either too bright (in the open-water daylight) or too dark (in the early-morning, nocturnal or dusk scenes) for them to constitute anything approaching a conventional idea of the ‘picturesque’. (The contrast-levels also play havoc with the English subtitles on many prints – they’re near-illegibly white-on-white, a problem which thankfully doesn’t occur on the subtitling for versions shown on TV and released on video and DVD.)

In addition, attentive viewers may notice something ‘off’ about the dialogue: Umecka and Malanowicz’s lines were in fact dubbed by other performers: Umecka by Anna Ciepielewska and Malanowicz by none other than Polanski, who had initially hoped to play the role of the disruptive, immature hitch-hiker himself. And Umecka isn’t exactly the most expressive of performers – she reportedly wasn’t a professional actress at all, and at one stage Polanski had to have an aide fire off a flare in order to stimulate a certain reaction from his star (who from certain angles bears a distracting resemblance to Natalie Wood, herself the victim of a yacht-trip drowning).

The script, meanwhile, also takes care to avoid conventional dramatic development: the sombre mood with its undertones of violence and hostility seems to point towards a tragic conclusion – indeed, at various points it appears that first Andrzej and then the hitch-hiker have drowned. But nothing plays out quite as we expect: the final shot conveys, if anything, a sense of depressing, Beckettian stasis, with the characters trapped in a moral cul-de-sac, stewing in their own repulsion.

The cumulative effect is undeniably stimulating, but also very off-putting: this is a film to be respected and admired, rather than liked or enjoyed: see Philip Noyce’s 1990 ocean-faring three-handed Dead Calm for a more conventionally satisfying multiplex-oriented variation on this theme. Knife in the Water, squarely aimed at the arthouses of its time, represents an impressive calling-card from the then-27-year-old Polanski – who clearly lacked for nothing in the ambition department. Making any kind of film on water is always a nightmarish experience for a director, and here Polanski was also clearly operating on a restricted budget, and under less-than-perfect weather conditions – presumably the script was rewritten ‘on the hoof’ to accommodate any sudden change in the elements. It’s telling that Polanski identified more with the hitch-hiker than with the older, more experienced Andrzej : for both character and director, the yacht is the setting for a learning-curve that’s steep, often painful, but ultimately highly productive.

3rd June, 2004
(seen 31st May : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : public show [BFI re-issue])

by Neil Young