Thursday, October 4, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.1: Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Let’s get this out of the way right now, since pretty much no conversation about Roman Polanski can avoid it: no, I don’t excuse Polanski’s crimes. Yes, he should have just served his time back in the 70s. Yes, I’ll concede that the court case is a lot more complicated than many people like to admit. Yes, the people who use that court case to completely write off his crimes are simplifying it in their own dangerous way.

It’s a shame that Polanski’s actions in 1977 have overshadowed, in some peoples’ minds, his filmography, considering how important and often powerful his work is. Simply put, Polanski’s influence on the face of horror films, thrillers, noirs, and film in general cannot be overlooked, with Polanski disciples like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, the Coen Bros., Ti West, and David Lynch taking pages from his fractured visions, mastery of suspense, and dark, depraved worldview. This month’s installment of Director Spotlight will follow Polanski’s filmography as it took him from Poland to Britain, from Hollywood to France, from and from territories that range from sprawling to deeply claustrophobic.

Grade: 96 (A)

Polanski’s early short films established the young Polish director as a force to be reckoned with, but the world first took notice with his 1962 film Knife in the Water, one of the most assured directorial debuts in film history. The film is small in size, but not in ambition, as Polanski throws everything he has at the audience in a thriller that’s just as potent as some of his better known later works. The film would go on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (the first Polish film to be nominated), and although it lost to Fellini’s 8 ½, it remains a testament to the young director’s talent, and an early exploration of his favorite themes: the results of isolation, the corrupting power of sex, the games powerful men play, and how the world goes mad.

The story  of Andrzej and Krystyna (Leon Niemczyk and Jolanta Umecka), a wealthy couple on a weekend yacht trip, takes a strange turn after they pick up a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz, voice dubbed by Polanski) after nearly hitting him with their car. When the young man expresses interest in the sea, Andrzej invites him aboard the boat. Andrzej continually berates and condescends to the young man, who seems out of his element at sea and among the elite. But when the young man has his own card to play: he’s far more virile than Andrzej, and when both men begin to vie for Krystyna’s affection, the mind games become physical.

A Hitchcock disciple, Polanski uses the Master of Suspense’s tactics to express his pet themes: tension is dragged out to maximum levels as the camera peers around every nook and cranny of the sailboat. They’re out in the open, but the boat is the only sanctuary on the vast sea. Confined to one space, the three have no choice but to deal with each other. Polanski takes advantage of the confined space to explore the characters’ bodies as well, which is where his Orson Welles influence comes in handy: Krystyna is a buxom, attractive woman whose sexuality becomes the driving factor in men’s power play. But she’s hardly the only sexualized character: the middle-aged Andrzej’s slight belly contrasts with the young man’s lean physique. He’s a threat (or at least a perceived threat) to Andrzej, and he must be put in his place. Polanski uses deep focus to use all three as focal points. At any point, the viewer can see what the dynamic is among the three- there’s nowhere for them to hide their displeasure with one another, nor do they have any choice but to explore each other’s bodies. That combination of claustrophobia, clear-eyed vision, and voyeurism is part of the genius of Knife in the Water.

Hitchcock  and Welles aren’t the only directors Polanski borrows from: a major fan of both Chaplin and Fellini, Polanski takes a page from the two directors as to how to ground the film in reality while still having a playful edge. Part of this comes from Krzysztof Komeda’s phenomenal jazz score, which fluctuates between breezy joy and intense sadness and ineffability. Jazz was largely banned in Poland throughout Polanski’s early life, so the film’s music is also a sign of rebellion from the director, which perfectly matches his style. Sexual, free, and unpredictable, the film spits in the face of respectability. Perhaps best is a scene in which Andrzej and Krystyna go for a swim. The young man is left aboard, and when the wind picks up and carries him off, Polanski cross-cuts between the boy, completely adrift (ha) and unsure of himself, and the couple, more assured but having trouble catching him.

While the film is more grounded in reality than a number of later Polanski films, it still has a surreal quality to its tone that’s largely informed by Luis Bunuel and by absurdist theatre, particularly Samuel Beckett. Polanski depicts a world that doesn’t make sense- the young and the old compete for no good reason, and while certain Polish officials were miffed at the ambiguous ending, it’s indicative of where Polanski’s head is at. There’s no purpose to the world, to the games men play, and at the end of the day we’re all grasping for straws when it comes to deciphering meaning. Polanski knows more than a little about this: as a young Jewish boy in Poland, he was a first-hand witness to Nazi atrocities; his mother was killed in a death camp, he and his father were separated for years, and he lived on the streets for much of the German occupation. Soldiers often shot at him without any knowledge of who he was or what his ethnicity was. There was no reason.

Andrzej sees the young man as a bum and a know-nothing; the man is ignorant to Andrzej’s everyday privileges and arrogant enough to think he could take Andrzej’s place. Besides, it’s his boat, and he shouldn’t have to show the man respect if he doesn’t want to. The hitchhiker, meanwhile, grows frustrated as Andrzej mocks his ignorance and flaunts his riches. He has but one prized possession: a knife, which he uses to cut through forests. Andrzej already doesn’t trust the young man, and when he sees the guest’s skill with a knife, he takes it as a threat, never mind that the hitchhiker is only playing five finger filet. Now, as Andrzej’s hermetic bubble of wealth has been penetrated, possession of the knife becomes a symbol of power, not to mention a symbol with sexual connotations. It’s phallic, it’s large, and it’s powerful,

If there’s a difference from Andzej and later Polanski rich men (Noah Cross of Chinatown, the Satanists of Rosemary’s Baby), it’s that his guilt weighs on him more heavily at the end. Andrzej’s power play has been a competition, not a malicious attempt to destroy a man. Still, Knife in the Water is a pessimistic film: no one is innocent, everyone’s playing a game, and none of them can return to their ordinary existence unshaken. Andrzej’s game has gone too far, and he’s now dogged with guilt and self-doubt: a “murderer” whose innocence of an actual crime can’t lift the stains from his soul. Krystyna is playing a game of her own, one that goes to cruel places as she does little to stop the competition and, near the end, teases Andrzej with suggestions of infidelity- she’s noticeably younger than him, so why shouldn’t she want a more virile man?

The young man, meanwhile, doesn’t have a name, and there’s a reason: the bourgeois couple never asks him. He’s an unwanted sign of class difference (communist Polish officials were miffed at the very suggestion that some people were better off than others). His sexuality, meanwhile, is a corrupting factor. He’s a threat to Andrzej and a possibility to Krystyna, and that possibility is what makes him resurface after Andrzej leaves Krystyna on the boat alone- he’s more of a victim than the others, but he’s no innocent, and he’s willing to act on his darker desires. The film’s class struggles no doubt are influenced by co-writer Jerzy Skolimowski (later director of the terrific Moonlighting), but Knife in the Water is a Polanski film through and through. The film serves as a recipe for later Polanski thrillers (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Rosemary’s Baby): take an isolated location, an insecure individual, and a valued sexuality. Add a power play, and let it simmer until it boils over into a world that refuses to make sense, no matter what we may want.

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