The motif of triangles in Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water… Gah! Who am I kidding? If anyone tried to write on the literal and figurative triangles in this film, they’d wind up in the madhouse with printed-out screenshots plastered all over their cell walls and tiny red threads lacing even madder triangles together. Suffice it to write that between Polanski’s detailed directorial eye, the film’s plot involving three characters claustrophobically thrown together on a sailboat, and the shape of a standard sail, there are about a bajillion triangles scattered in and on top of Knife in the Water.
The plot is simple enough: a bourgeois couple (sportswriter Andrezj and his younger wife Krystyna) picks up a hitchhiking student (dubbed in the credits as “Young Boy”) and invites him along on their yacht trip (named the Americanized version of his wife’s name, “Christine”). On the boat, unsaid tensions between all three rise to the surface and boil over (not-so-coincidentally, the wife cooks up some soup onboard for their lunch). Adding to the dynamic, both Krystyna and Young Boy were played by non-actors and later dubbed, the latter by Polanski himself (who originally had planned to play the role himself). Through Polanski’s lens, the film is fraught with heightened drama from putting these three tightly wound characters in very close quarters for 24 hours and watching them unravel, heightened by naturalistic shooting and sporadic jazz.
In Knife in the Water, Polanski is the king of juxtaposition from utilizing deep focus photography to illustrate the love triangle dynamics at play to the ongoing pissing contests between the older sportswriter and the younger student (including lines like “If two men are onboard, one’s the skipper” and sometimes involving a knife). Two-thirds of the way in, the couple and hitchhiker are driven below deck by rain and resort to playing jackstraws. After the wife and hitchhiker forfeit the game, each has to pay up – the wife sings a song and the hitchhiker recites a poem.
Sounds innocent enough.
But add in that the husband is listening to a boxing match on his earpiece and the suggestive lyrics and lines (the wife singing of a stagnant love and the hitchhiker speaking of a hopeful mother figure) and you have yourself a torrid, albeit not physical, moment between the wife and the hitchhiker, with the husband sitting idly by.
Throughout the film, there is spoken and unspoken wit that becomes harsher as the plot unfurls. On their initial, abrupt meeting, the wife asks the hitchhiker who he is and the husband answers answers for him with a grin, “Charged with manslaughter for running over a puppy.” At one point on the boat, the husband asks the hitchhiker, “Want to try her?” referring to the boat, and then the camera cuts to a close-up involving the wife’s chest. Later on in a discussion about their work and studies, the hitchhiker asks the husband whether he’s a gynecologist and then the wife appears from below deck. By the end (spoiler), when the wife tells her husband of the affair with the hitchhiker, the husband initially doesn’t believe her and pointedly tells her that that’s an unfunny joke.
The key theme at play is the struggle between men and women, specifically in marriage, to the detriment to the wife. The film opens with the wife driving and the husband being driven out of frustration with her to take over the wheel. He goes on to belittle her throughout the film, saying the song she hums and sings was stupid and dismissing her whenever she asks about his seaman story. (Which he finally explains/finishes at the end.)
Between the two men, she becomes an object of their competition, objectified literally in that both men witness her changing clothes and we as the audience watch her in a state of undress whereas the men have privacy in their assumed nudity (assumed because we never see it fully). When the men finally put their dukes up and the hitchhiker is knocked offboard, all of the couple’s criticisms of each other come spurting out. In the heated exchange, the husband yells, “Without me, you’d be a whore!” So once he’s swum off and the hitchhiker returns to the boat, it seems like fair game.
But even then, her intimacy with the hitchhiker begins with her seeing him as the younger version of her husband, and in a warped way, her cheating on her husband with the hitchhiker recaptures the flame of her marriage. Leaving the hitchhiker fending off and leaping at logs, she focuses on the horizon and doesn’t turn back, even as the camera shows him slipping on one of the logs and perhaps ending up drowning after all (though that’s still up in the air due to the quick cut and the fact that we never see him again). When she spots her husband in his swimming trunks on the dock, she steers the boat towards him and without words, they accept each other back as they pack up the boat. As they walk off the boat and down the dock, the husband and wife carry extra baggage: literally in their large rucksacks and figuratively with all that they’d gone through.
Off the boat and back in the car, she lets her husband think that he has indeed killed the hitchhiker and lets him drive towards the police station. When she finally tells him, he doesn’t believe her and when it does sink in more (though its still up to interpretation who fully he believes that his wife cheated on him), he stops the car at a “5 KM to Police Station” sign. The two continue to talk, with him elaborating a bit more about the seaman who jumped into broken glass and her asking why he would do that. Rather than answering her, he drowns the situation out yet again and puts the radio on. The camera cuts to a wide shot (one of the few in the film) of their car from behind farther down the road, with no movement–only the radio is playing.
As the film fades to black, the couple is returned to their state of unspoken tension and all is nearly like it was before, assumedly sweeping what was said and done under the marital carpet, with only the audience as witnesses. As the hitchhiker described the knife at sea (“You don’t need one on the water.”), he has become as inconsequential for the couple on land with them getting on with their troubled married life.
For Polanski’s first outing in feature films, his attention to obsessive detail both in shots and plot is a marvel to behold. Even out of that context, Knife in the Water is a striking film for a first-time or many-time viewer, with its utilization of deep focus photography, tight shots and swanky (sometimes scatty) jazz. Ashamedly, last night’s screening on TCM was the first time this writer had even seen the film, having somehow missed it during her film studies years and is kicking herself right now for not watching it sooner.
As they say, better late than never.