When you take a cursory glance at the framework of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, it’s hard to imagine that it could be the foundation of a good movie. A story of three people on a boat doesn’t quicken the pulse much, but Polanski packs so much into this little movie that it’s astounding. As a psychological drama, Knife contains layer upon layer, and it never wavers. This is a masterpiece, pure and simple.
Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka) are a power couple – We can see that before we even hear a word out of either of them. On their way to a boating trip, he rudely takes over the wheel after she almost runs the car off the road. Andrzej, a sportswriter, is a prototype alpha male – Handsome, strong, and confident. Krystyna, in her cat-eye glasses, seems at first to be a mousy push-over. When they pick up a young hitchhiker, (Zygmunt Malanowicz), it’s not really out of kindness or compassion. It’s more to have an opportunity to lord over someone.
It’s this same air of superiority that leads to the young man being invited onto the couple’s yacht. In these early passages, Andrzej is even somewhat patronly towards the younger man. He plainly doesn’t see him as a threat. The younger man seems to own only the clothes on his back.
Once they get out on the water, however, the film changes very subtly, and the first clue is in how Krystyna is portrayed. A scene opens to her sunbathing in a white bikini on the deck – The old-lady glasses are now gone, and she now plainly begins to represent sexual tension. This starts to point up Polanski’s genius in staging this drama on the deck of a tiny boat. The people are in close quarters, and they have to brush closely by one another. There is no escaping each other. It’s also not an accident that for virtually the whole film, all three characters are scantily dressed.
The dynamic upon which the film is built is the contest between the two men. One a wealthy and confident older man - The younger one is dirt poor, but sexually intriguing. An early scene where the two men have to drag the boat through some thick reeds starts to lay open the relationship. When the young one complains about the work, he is chided for being soft – A slap at his masculinity.
I think that this directly influences the next scene, where the young man shinnies up the mast of the ship. Andrzej has told a story earlier about climbing up a tree when he was a young sailor, and I think that this is the younger mans’ “Fuck you” to him. It probably also contains a kernel of flaunting oneself for the woman. The older man then lays on the deck and starts to whistle, after having earlier told the younger one that he can’t whistle on the boat. This is his “Fuck you” back. These are the kind of beautiful little touches that are peppered throughout KITW.
I haven’t even mentioned the knife of the title. The younger man carries it as a kind of masculine totem, and it first gets introduced after Krystyna emerges in her white bikini. It is an unmistakable phallic image, and Andredj seems a little more interested in that it than he ought to be. A little game of poking the blade between your fingers is yet another illustration of the one-upmanship going on between the two men.
Slowly, almost unperceptively, the younger man and the woman start to circle one another. After a storm forces the three to the inside of the ship, they pass the time with a game of pick-up-sticks. Here again, the cramped boat becomes almost another character in the drama. They are bunched together with the wife and the young man side by side. They are essentially playing strip pick-up sticks, and although the stakes are pretty tame (She has to remove a shoe), the undercurrents aren’t. Andrezj is distracted listening to a boxing match on the radio as his wife sings a song for the younger man. Notice how he asks for the song she sang as she laid on the deck; he was sizing her up even then. Watch her eyes during this sequence and you start really seeing the seduction start to flow in the other direction now.
Things finally come to a head when the older man churlishly tries to make the younger one swab the deck, and he balks. The resulting battle results in the younger one on the water and presumably drowned. All the pent-up anger between Andrezj and Krystyna come boiling over now, as she accuses him of murdering the younger man and he in turn tells her she would be a whore if he hadn’t married her. The level of vitriol is huge. He dives in to try to find the younger man and disappears. The younger man now manages to swim back to the boat, and finds Krystyna alone.
Their sexual encounter is inevitable, I guess, but it is somewhat muted in its passion, like the two are just going through the motions. It could be read that both are following personal agendas, rather than lust. She is coming off a fight where she told her husband she hated him. He has been humiliated by the husband, and now gets the ultimate payback. It’s easy to miss one little visual wink here – When the seduction finally comes about, she is wearing her husband’s sweater. Even though he’s not physically there, he’s still part of the story. It’s also worth noting how she treats the younger man after she had sex with him – She asks about his family in a formal, almost motherly way. It’s her way of putting distance back between them. She is done with him, and now he takes his leave of her. There is nothing there after the act itself.
When she gets back to the dock, she finds her husband waiting there, and this creates an interesting point. Without a word, they go about the business of closing up the boat, as if on autopilot. No clues as to where things stand.
I love the way KITW closes its little tale. He thinks that the young man has drowned, and doesn’t believe his wife, even as she tells the whole story, including the sex. The film literally ends at a crossroads, as they try to decide whether to go to the police or not. The suggestion is that they have gone through some sort of cleansing during this ordeal, because the wife suggests that he doesn’t need to go to the police. He finishes telling a story that he started at the beginning, about a seaman who jumped on broken glass and cut his feet to shreds. The gist of the story is that he was a former stoker who had built up thick feet, but from lack of work, had had his feet go soft. That’s the hope for these two as the sit at that fork in the road. The stoker had learned the hard way that he wasn’t what he once was. Perhaps, at this lonely fork in the road, this couple will realize the same thing.