Ménage à trois

Woman, man, boy.

Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, released in Europe in 1962 (it won Polanski the FIPRESCI Prize at Venice in September of that year), proved that Polish cinema could be jazzy and sexy: a psychological thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a sailboat, it’s as cool and stylish as something by Antonioni and as quietly suspenseful as something by Hitchcock.  Watching it, you keep assuming that someone is going to end up dead—why else would that titular knife be given such prominence?  Chekhov’s rule of drama states that if a gun is introduced in the first act of a play it must go off in the last.  But Polanski’s knife turns out to be something of a red herring.  It’s typical of his sensibility as a filmmaker that already in this, his first feature, he toys with the expectations of his audience in order to subvert them.  The damage done to the film’s central couple is more sinuous and ironic than if it were triggered by a more overt act of violence, and more reflective of Polanski’s aims as a master of the subtle art of black comedy.

The triangle of Knife in the Water can be traced throughout such later Polanski films as Cul-de-Sac and Bitter Moon (and even Macbeth), which similarly hinge on cunning wives, masochistic husbands, intricate games of dominance and submission.  The power dynamic between Krystyna and Andrzej, and between Andrzej and the lean, blonde drifter they take on board with them, changes as quickly as the direction of the wind, represented visually by the constant swing of the sailboat’s boom.  Does Andrzej control Krystyna, or vice versa?  It would seem that the men fight to stake their claim on her, just as they keep one-upping each other in an attempt to take control of the boat (which is named Christine, of course).  But it’s worth noting that at the end of the film it’s Krystyna herself who takes the helm of the boat—just as she is at the wheel of the car when the film begins, before Andrzej wrests it away from her.  And if she is the one “driving” the actions of the two men, it’s also possible to see Andrzej as desirous, however unconsciously, of being bested by his young rival.  (Such an interpretation would help explain Andrzej’s motives for first picking him up on the road, then inviting him aboard.)  

Krystyna at the wheel.

The end of the film finds Andrzej back in the driver’s seat, but at an impasse as to what to do.  He is faced with two possible narrative explanations for the events of the last several hours: either he is responsible for accidentally causing the boy’s death or he has been cuckolded by him.  It’s a double bind worthy of Polanski’s countryman Krzysztof Kieslowski.  But Polanski doesn’t make an ethical dilemma out of it the way that Kieslowski would have done; instead he plays it as irony, looking at his characters with the same mischievous smirk that he has been wearing ever since.  

The final shot: at an impasse.

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