Sunday, February 4, 2007

Knife in the Water (Poland, 1962)

This is Roman Polanski's first feature film. It breaks away from narrative conventions during a period when most if not all films were concerned with war or made references to it. In this sense, Knife in the Water is a non-conformist film because it does not refer to historical context to frame the psychology of its characters. The focus is entirely internal, entirely psychological, with only three characters. More so, the film does not have a conventional plot with a protagonist, antagonist or resolution. The plot is indeterminable and exists entirely as a skeleton to explore the minds of the individual characters.

Polanski's intention of making a film that examined the psychological and existential side of life is reflected in the style and aesthetics of the film. Frequent subjective point-of-view shots are composed with the characters' backs turned towards the camera, drawing attention to the internal states of the characters. There is a lot of thinking going on and not a lot of talking. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of the film--the absence of dialogue (not a lack of)--and is apparent from the very beginning of the film during the car sequence. The film is brilliant because it does not rely on dialogue to delineate the plot or to express the interactions among characters to a passive viewer. Instead, the viewer often takes the place of the characters and actively participates by imposing thought and motivation onto the characters while they are pensive. I think this kind of audience role-playing is suggested in the fact that it is very difficult to remember the names of the characters throughout the film (I don't even remember a reference to the characters using each other's names.)

As for a social analysis, the film plays out a contest of masculinity between the younger and older man with the wife frequently acting as a mediator (she often keeps the men from fighting). The older man is always showing-off his experience and class to the boy, who assumes the full-fledged role of a voyeur. The knife is a symbol of simultaneous fear and aggression. It is also a phallic symbol-the older man feels like he is losing the contest and seems impotent towards the end when he steals the knife from the younger man. The film incises overconfident masculinities, as the male characters alternate between fear and bravado. I think that at the end of the film, it is the wife who wields the knife because she elicits her husband’s fear with her unbelievable honesty.


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