Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski / Poland, 1962):
(Nóz w Wodzie)

The sailboat is the ideal setting for the sardonic worldview (one-upmanship surrounded by an undulating void), Roman Polanski is unmistakably the cunning hellion playing with a blade on the deck ("I’ve got a delicate touch"). A disinterested kiss summarizes the state of the couple’s marriage, he (Leon Niemczyk) takes over the wheel en route to the lake, she (Jolanta Umecka) is blank but for a tiny, curled smile of irony. The sexy young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanawicz) completes the composition. The drive to the boat is a terse preamble, the weekend cruise is an insinuating exploration of Antonioni’s nautical lenses in L’Avventura. The subtle, wry phallocentric competition pits the husband’s materialist smoking pipe against the wanderer’s carefree knife: The skipper’s maps and compass don’t impress the sailor, the bikini-clad figure of the wife splashes amusedly in the background between them. At times the characters have an air of apocalyptic-survivor lostness, at others they perversely suggest some Holy Family (an overhead view from the mast frames the sunbathing Malanawicz with outstretched arms and a coiled-rope halo, cavorting on his invisible cross). Rain sends the trio below the deck, where Polanski’s close study of Welles (The Lady from Shanghai in particular) and the power plays of Jerzy Skolimowski’s screenplay take off. One lingering image has Niemczyk fiddling with his radio and Malanawicz trying to catch a pesky fly while Umecka undresses; the matchbox stripping-game from Innocent Sorcerers is here a match of pick-up sticks, the boy recites a poem and the wife offers a song ("We’re out of words and moons and stars, there’s no tenderness in us...") in bravura long takes. Circles and triangles govern Polanski’s great, brackish anecdote about the instability of human interaction, with power ultimately belonging to the woman who sees through the pose of the louts orbiting around her but embraces seduction anyway. The closing image drops patriarchy on the crossroads, admission of guilt on one side and acceptance of cuckoldry on the other (cp. Chabrol’s La Femme Infidčle). Cinematography by Jerzy Lipman. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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