Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water is a film about the absurdity of competitions of male superiority and dominance. In the film, the youth and Andrzej are continually engaging in competition in order to try and decide who the superior male is. The prize seems to be the female, who in the end actually becomes the victor, if it indeed can be said that there is any such thing as win or loss in such situations. The challenge between the males is rendered meaningless as it is the female, the supposed ‘prize,’ who, herself, becomes both the deciding factor and the most important element of the competition.
The film does much to establish a specific mood and feeling. The boat that the three characters share is shown to be a claustrophobia-inducing space. The overtones of awkwardness and tension established between the characters is heightened and mirrored by the distinctive style that Polanski imposes on the film. Composition often heightens the senses of tension and claustrophobia. The frame is crowded by the images of the characters as the ship is also crowded by their physical presence. Many shots are such that half the composition is taken over by a character in the foreground while the remaining amount of frame is given over to the other two in the background. The image is flattened out by this crowding of space, and so the claustrophobic sense of proximity is heightened.
Polanski’s approach to the films photography is appropriate in that knife in the Water is very much a film that functions on a psychological level. There are only three characters in the entirety of the film. As a matter of fact, the settings are conspicuously desolate. The close up shots of characters and their crowding of the screen coupled with their total isolation from all outside human contact and presence heightens and emphasizes the film’s aim as a character study. The film’s most significant aspect is its study of the characters as individuals and their relations to one another.
The plot and the film’s drive is set up as a series of competition-like activities that are established, participated in and precipitated by the two men. Moreover, Andrzej’s insistence on the accompaniment of the youth seems from the very beginning an attempt to prove his masculinity and male superiority to his wife. The elder immediately believes that the youth will prove an easy opponent. The film’s opening scene depicts Anderzej driving in his car with Krystyna, his wife, and the viewer right away senses that their relationship is strained if not altogether on the rocks. The addition of the youth to the group only underlines the complexity and bad circumstance of the marriage.
The elder’s desire to somehow prove an ability to dominance in front of his wife and in relation to the youth prompts the youth to respond by returning the competitive impulse. It is quickly established that the two men understand Krystyna as the prize of their competitions. Nonetheless, Krystyna remains, mostly, detached, or disinterested with regard to the competition. Instead, she remains polite toward her husband and becomes protective toward the youth, almost mother-like. Nonetheless, it is Krystyna who in the end gets the proverbial upper hand on both of the men. The two men become so obsessed with their competitiveness that they disregard Krystyna for much of the film, indeed almost treat her like a prize. However, in the end one realizes that all along it was Krystyna who was most important, and ultimately empowered. The competition between the two men reaches a climax when they explode into fight. Andrzej takes the youth’s knife. When the youth can’t find it Andrzej reveals that he has taken it. Andrzej is fueled by a jealousy that is brought on by finding the youth with Krystyna, though it seemed innocent Andrzej understands it as having occurred behind his back. When the youth sees that Andrzej has taken his knife, he confronts him. A struggle ensues and the knife is dropped and lost into the water. The knife serves as a phallic symbol and the two men’s struggle over its possession symbolizes their struggle for superiority and dominance. As a phallic symbol, the knife represents the defining male characteristic which is ultimately what the entire series of competition between the men was all about. With the knife’s loss, so is lost the competition’s point of reference. Without it, the competition seems unfounded, and so is resolved in a respect. Andrzej throws the youth from the boat and when he won’t return and Andrzej and Krystyna can’t find him they begin to assume that he has drowned. Andrzej leaves the ship to swim to the surface, leaving Krystyna alone. The sudden jolt of reality in the possibility of death and murder has made Andrzej realize the competition’s absurdity. When the youth returns, Krystyna cheats on her husband and sleeps with him. Krystyna returns to shore ro meet her husband, before which the youth leaves the boat unnoticed by Andrzej. The film ends at a cross road, both literally and metaphorically. Andrzej and Krystyna sit in the car at a forj in the road, if Andrzej turns one way he will go to the police and confess to the youth’s death, if he turns the other way he goes home with Krystyna to continue their life. When Andrzej reveals his guilt over what had occurred, Krystyna confesses the truth. That the youth had not died and that she cheated on Andrzej by sleeping with him. Andrzej says that he doesn’t believe her, but the audience is left to wonder whether he really doesn’t or whether he is lying to himself, unable to betray his own false sense of pride. The film closes without providing any resolution.
At its end, knife in the Water exposes the absurdity of male chauvinism and, in its wake, empowers the female character, Krystyna. Krystyna reverses the power relationship between herself and her husband. Not only did she get away with cheating on him but she did not even have to lie about it. Whether he believes her or not, Andrzej loses. If he believes her he has to live with the fact that his wife thinks so little of him that she would cheat on him with the youth that he so furiously competed with. If he decides to not believe her then he must live with the guilt of having killed an innocent young man. The film ends in this psychological tension, and the resolution that is not provided is left to play itself out within this psychological tension. However, the release of tension through a resolution wouldn’t have mattered, for regardless of what one might imagine it to be, it is Krystyna who is in the end empowered and emphasized as the deciding and most important element of the film.