Knife in the Water
Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Three movies about competition, property, and rank. Knife in the Water from Poland, Mad Mad Mad Mad World from the USA, and Billy Liar from England. All three are chases and each with a beast in view but only the American film actually runs away with itself down a nightmare slope of greed and violence. The other two are painful enough but generally well in hand; especially Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a vigilant, metallic piece set on board a small sailing boat. In fact this movie is so artfully cool, so muted and slit-eyed that it sometimes seems downright camp. Two men compete for the favors of a bored girl who wishes the hell with both of them—a spare sexual isosceles which is nicely symbolized in clean, stripped images of sail, sky, and water which group and re-group in triangles and trapeziums of gray and white as the boatload of trouble skims trimly across the lake. A stylish three-finger exercise on the theme of pride.
But there is something else which brings this film into line with the other two. For it’s also a political story about privilege and envy. It was made after all in a country which has begun to emerge from social and economic austerity—from a section of the world which is seriously embarrased these days by the liveliness of the acquisitive spirit. We have a journalist who has worked his way, apparently from a position of great poverty to one of comfortable privilege. He comes on at the start in a nifty little German car and unloads a bundle of expensive dacron sails for his racing dinghy, the cabin of which turns out to be an Aladdin’s cave of ritzy sporting gear—shipboard cookers, inflatable water toys, frog-flippers, chronometers, and a whole trove of out-door stuff from some Polish Abercrombie & Fitch. The student who hoists himself aboard this pleasure barge is understandably consumed with envy and resentment—not to mention a certain ideological dismay at all this middle-class hedonist equipment. Before long the two men are engaged in a silly tournament of wit and daring as the student’s envy provokes him to score off the older man’s vanity. But while they are both challenging each other’s manliness in this way they are also locked in a concealed political dispute: about who does and who doesn’t have a right to expensive personal property. Even the wife is reduced to a sullen chattel for whom the men are haggling, along with all the other tackle.
Polanski has played a cool trick by taking this ordinarily social squabble out of the city and putting it down in the middle of a watery nowhere. In this way the two men, one deprived and the other privileged, are isolated from the familiar evidence which they might otherwise call upon to explain the puzzling difference in their fortunes. Out in the wild like this, without legal credentials at hand, everything seems …
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