Tag Archives: Roman Polanski

“Venus in Furs,” the movie

The 2010 play by David Ives, “Venus in Furs,” set in New York City, is about auditioning an actress for an adaptation of the 1870 Austrian novella Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to “masochism.” I think of “masochjism” (and “sadomasochism”) being about pain, but pain is less central than submission/abjection, at least in the 2013 movie in French and set in Paris based on the play that was made by 80-year-old Roman Polanski and starring the film-maker’s wife Emmanuelle Sweigner (The Ninth Gate) as the actress who says her name is Wanda, like the woman (Wanda von Dunayev) recruited by Masoch’s stand-in character, Severin von Kusiemski, to dominate him.

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The actress probes how autobiographical adapting the novella was for the writer who is directing his play, Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric). After getting him to read the part of Severin von Kusiemski with her after auditions are supposed to be over, she unleashes the fetishist and would-be slave in him, and eventually, when the play’s Wanda wants to be dominated, gets him into high heels and ties him up.

Throughout the reading, Wanda (the actress) criticizes the sexism of the conception and writing, while Thomas sometimes faults her renditions of his lines, though generally marveling at her understanding of the character and the dynamic of Mascoch’s story.

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When Polanski announced he would film Ives’s play, the part of the director was supposed to be played by Louis Garrel. IMHO Garrel is too kinky for the part. I though Amalric was superb (as he often is, e.g., in “A Christmas Tale” from 2008), and he has a great voice. Plus he looks more than a little like a younger Roman Polanski (say around the time he starred in “The Tenant”[1976]) while playing a narcissistic director.

The early comedy with the seemingly needy actress gives way to the uncomic needy male, and the end seems rushed to me. None of the other characters, who include three African women and a Greek aristocrat, appear in the movie, which has only the two characters onscreen. I thought Polanslki’s immediately preceding movie, “Carnage” (2011), was funnier, and another adaptation of a play, “Death and the Maiden” (1994), more consequential. Power dynamics and paranoia are certainly Polanlski hallmarks (Cul de Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant, The Ghost Writer, etc.)

 

©2014, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

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A well-crafted, conventional paranoid thriller from Roman Polanski

“Ghost Writer” (2010) does not have the resonances with l’affaire Polanski that “Tess” (or “The Pianist”) did, beyond having a man on the run (as Polanski was as a child whom the Nazis would have exterminated had they caught him, and fleeing the imminent reneging of a plea bargain in LA).

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It is awhile into the movie that the titular ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) turns into a sort of action hero evading spooks following him after he starts more than suspecting that his predecessor was murdered. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty much every “paranoid thriller” shows that the seeming paranoia is justified, that is, that there is a real conspiracy. (The only sort-of exception to the rule I can think of is Coppola’s “The Conversation” in which Gene Hackman seems to have gone from suspicious to paranoid.)

The Ghost is taken to a high-security High Modernist beach house on or just off Cape Cod. A lengthy manuscript exists, both the flash drive and the printout are secured in a safe tied to alarms that shut down the house. The Ghost thinks the manuscript too dry and sets out to make it more interesting.

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Initially, he meets the chief of staff, played with restraint by Kim Catrall, but soon the ex-Prime Minister, Andrew Lang (Pierce Brosnan) shows up. The tension between his executive assistant and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who seems the brains of the family with the keenest political instincts, is soon supplemented by moves to indict him for war crimes (authorizing torture) in the international tribunal at the Hague. Being on American soil, he is safe from extradition, since the US only urges prosecution of crimes against humanity and conducted ones after the defeat of Germany and Japan, but maintains impunity because American intentions are always good (by definition).

The Tony Blair figure also needs to be on American soil so that the ghost can drive to the house of a senior Harvard professor of foreign relations (Tom Wilkinson), and so that the British ambassador to the UN, appointed by Lang and a long-time associate of Lang’s, can get to him. There are some red herrings and —what is the opposite, a green herring? And the obligatory Ewan McGregor nude scene (not full-frontal this time) and bedding one or more of Lang’s women (the suspense is which one or whether he will bed them both). And a corporate jet from a company called Hatherton (clearly meant to resonate with a company headed by Dick Cheney of which he did not divest his holdings until long into the war in Iraq he urged and Tony Blair joined).

There is no discussion between Lang and his ghostwriter of the decision to invade Iraq. For that matter, I don’t recall the ghost asking the ex-PM if he authorized torture.

The ghost does have a very ominous, Hitchcockian conversation with an old man down the beach (played by nanagenerian Eli Wallach).

The three very interesting DVD bonus features each give away practically everything about the plot and at least two of them remark that the ending was not scripted.

Having begun (more or less) with the subject of craftsmanship, I will end by lauding the craft of the movie: not just the direction and the acting by a superb cast, but the cinematography of Pawel Edelman (Ray, The Pianist, Katyn), and the incongruous music provided by Alexandre Desplat (Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox). The adaptation by Robert Harris (Enigma, Archangel) of his own novel or the novel itself is the weakest link.

©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

Polanski invades late-19th-century Wessex

I have not read a single Thomas Hardy novel. I probably read a few of his poems in my senior year of high school. If so, they left no lasting impression on me. Hardy’s 1892 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented was his biggest financial success during his lifetime and is his bestselling title on Amazon (both Kindle and paper), ahead of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

My reading of 19th-century fiction is generally spotty, but it’s a bit surprising to me that I did not see Roman Polanski’s 1979 film adaptation, titled simply “Tess” (having been born in Paris and living there then and now, I’d guess that Polanski balked at the redundancy of “of the d’”). I remember being puzzled but not dismayed by his previous film “The Tenant” (in which he played the title role) and I loved John Schleisinger’s 1967 adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with a luminous Julie Christie and a dashing cad played in scarlet uniform by Terrence Stamp.

Though I try not to watch movies through the lens of the biographies of their makers, this is as difficult in the case of “Tess” as it was in the case of “The Pianist.” If there is anyone who does not know: Polanski survived as a fugitive from Nazi extermination, as his mother did not, and pled guilty to statutory rape in California and fled the country on the eve of a judge (who had been guilty of multiple instances of misconduct in the case—according to the prosecutor, not just the defense lawyer) reneging on the plea bargain. Polanski remains a fugitive from justice (and/or the California judicial system).

The history of being a fugitive is not lacking with echoes in Tess fleeing calumny, but the aspect that was impossible to wall off while I was watching the movie was that the naïve young title character, Tess Durbeyfield, (played by a 17- or 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski, who was sexually involved with Polanski before that) is raped by and impregnated by her “cousin” Alec d’Urberville (Leigh Lawson). This disgrace leads her future husband (Peter Firth) to abandon her when he learns of it (on the wedding night), blocks the love of the lives of both Tess and her husband, and leads to murder and hanging.

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Polanski was telling the tragic story of a young woman, The rapist (“statutory” and more, just like Polanski himself) is worldly and more than a little arrogant in taking his pleasure. Can Polanski have failed to see parallels and been attempting to make amends of sorts through his art?

Real-life interference is even stronger in that Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, had recommended he consider directing her in the title role of an adaptation of the book shortly before she was murdered (pregnant with Polanski’s child) in the Manson massacre. The movie is dedicated “To Sharon,” and its star (daughter of German mandman actor Klaus Kinski) had taken her place both in the director’s bed and in playing Tess, “a victim of her own provocative beauty,” to borrow from advertising copy, which also included the provocative “She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape.” Whew! And there is the class difference (the rich preying on the young if not invariably innocent less well-off) not only in Tess and Alec, Roman and the 13-year-old, and in the movie in which Polanski directed Tate, “The Fearless Vampire Killer”

Swinging back to the very beginning of the movie and explaining the “scare quotes” around “cousin” above, Tess’s drunkard father John Durbeyfield (John Collin) learns in the first scene that he is descended from the Norman lords d’Urberville, some of whom are entombed in the local church. The local historian remarks on how the might have fallen, but his telling John about his research gives John and his wife (Rosemary Martin) delusions of grandeur. (I’m pretty sure that, like Zola, Hardy himself was influenced by widespread ideas of that era about degeneration. Both portrayed inexorable grinding down of the innocent by the rich and the sociocultural system of condemning female sexuality that often involves blaming the victim.)

Having learned that “Durbeyfield” is a corruption (Anglicization?) of “d’Urberville,” the suddenly haughty parents send Tess off to call on the resident d’Urberville. Alec is not, in fact, kin, having bought the coat of arms and name.

Though having intimated a lot about the plot, I will not discuss the romances and degradations that follow the rape/seduction. I think that the leads (Kinski, Firth, Lawson) are all impressive and look their Victorian parts.

Not having read the novel, I don’t know what was pruned, but from my limited experience with novels from that era, I have no doubt that there was much that could have been. From the movie, some of the lingering beautiful countryside shots could have been excised with no loss. The story does not need 172 minutes to tell!

The story is quite clear, and the locations, mostly in Brittany plus some in Normandy, look right. (In a bonus feature someone explains that they could not find locations in Somerset that looked like late-19th-century Somerset, but could in Brittany.) I found the vintage farm machinery (from the dawn of mechanized agriculture) fascinating to watch, too.

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The movie won Oscars for costume design, art direction/set decoration, and cinematography (Ghislain Cloquet [Au hasard Balthazar] shot most of the movie after Geoffrey Unsworth [Becket, Cabaret, 2001] died). It was nominated for its music score, direction, and as best picture, as well. It also received Cesars for picture, direction, and cinematography, but lost to the quite superb production design of Ariane Mnouchkine’s “Molière”).

The DVD bonus features raise my 3.5 (of 5) rating of the movie to 4 stars. The tripartite “making of” feature runs a total of 70 minutes and includes insightful discussions from Kinski, Polanski, dialogue-writer John Brownjohn (who lived only a few yards from the pub that John Durbeyfied frequented, though that is not why he was hired), and Claude Berri, who produced “Tess” and directed an even better movie about rural grinding down of an innocent “Jean de Florette” (and its sequel in which “Manon of the Springs” prevails, which is very un-Hardy-like).

©2010, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

A terrified Roman Polanski

With a very geeky Isabelle Adjani and four Oscar winners (of a total of six awards: Melvyn Douglas, Lila Kedrova, Jo Van Fleet, and Shelley Winters) as other people living in an old Paris apartment building, Roman Polanski’s first movie after fleeing California was “The Tenant” (1976). Polanski was an actor (for Andrzej Wajda in “A Generation” among others) before becoming a director. His slight physical stature and early life experiences made him a “natural” for bullied characters (The Fat and the Lean).

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In addition to the outright “paranoid thrillers” (Chinatown, Ghost Writer), the films Polanski has directed recurrently have considerable anxiety and dread (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Tess, Frantic, Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden. The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Oliver Twist, Ghost WRiter).

Polanski was born in France and like the somewhat devious but easily cowed Slav, Trelkovsky, whom he played in “The Tenant,” is a French citizen. At the beginning, the third-floor walkup apartment without a private bath that he wants to rent from M. Zy (Melvyn Douglas) is shown by the surly concierge (Shelley Winters) who assures Trelkovsky that the previous tenant, Simone, who defenestrated herself, will not be returning. Trelkovsky goes to the hospital to check on the status of the woman who is in traction and almost mummified in bandages.

A friend of Simone, Stella (Isabelle Adjani dubbed into English) is also there, and the two go off for drinks after Simone starts screaming. Simone dies that night and Trelkovsky moves in. The dead woman was fascinated by ancient Egypt and has multiple representations of Nefriti in the apartment, along with her clothes and makeup.

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Trelkovsky is bullied by his coworkers into loud partying that infuriates his landlord and the chief busybody (Jo Van Fleet, pictured above) among other tenants. A pixyish woman with a crippled child, Madame Gaderian, played by my beloved Lila Kedrova (who won an Oscar in “Zorba the Greek,” and was great in “Tell Me a Riddle” and “The Angel Levine”) seeks his support against the nasty neighbors.

And different people stand in the window of the toilet across the courtyard from Trelkovsky’s room staring out. The glass awning that the previous resident broke in jumping to her death is repaired.

Eventually, Trelkovsky sees a ghost, but it is more that the dead woman increasingly possesses him than that she haunts him. Trelkovsky believes that the neighbors who are hounding him and Mme. Gaderian hounded his predecessor to suicide. (In “Rosemary’s Baby,” not to mention “Chinatown,” and “The Ghost Writer,” there was a real conspiracy; “The Tenant” is more like “Repulsion” in that the dissolution seems paranoid.)

As when I saw the movie in its theatrical release, the movie seems far too long to unfold its rather simple portrayal of going crazy. I don’t care if it is classified a “psychological thriller” or a “horror movie,” “Kafkaesque” or “Cormanesque,” there’s just not enough there there to run 126 minutes. It’s creepy and there are some mean-spirited women in it (Van Fleet and Winters along with the coworker who insists on playing the phonograph full-blast), but also the very generous Stella, and most of the others are more indifferent than spiteful, though that is not how he perceives their intentions.

Not knowing who can be trusted is a leitmotif of Polanski’s movies from “Knife in the Water” through “Venus in Furs,” with particularly masterful examples in “Death and the Maiden” and “The Pianist” (and very popular ones in “Rosemary’s Baby” and ”Chinatown”). In my view Trelkovsky is not to be trusted, but I will not speculate on reading into this anything about Polanski’s then-recent crimes involving some misplaced trusts in him and hostile gazes of many.

The image was very well transferred, but Paramount provided no extras other than a trailer. The dynamic range of the dialogue is so great, that to know what was said in whispers I found myself readjusting the volume over and over, and eventually turned on the English subtitles.

 

©2010, 2018

Roman Polanski’s biggest hit: “Rosemary’s Baby”

Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby was a mega-best—seller in 1967. I’m not sure whether I read it before seeing the 1968 movie adapted and directed by Roman Polanski (who received an Oscar nomination for the adapted screenplay). The movie was also a mega-hit (with a thousand percent profit on its initial American release).

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As an adolescent watching the movie, I had no conception of Roman Polanski’s body of work. He had already made some disturbing enigmatic movies (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul de Sac) that I would see later (than my first viewing of “Rosemary’s Baby”). Watching “Rosemary’s Baby” again, I have a lot more sense of Polanski’s recurrent concerns (in a word: angst) and have seen various Polanski movies in which it is difficult to tell if the characters are imperiled or are imagining dangers (etc.). Whether the woman who thinks she has found (and tied up) the man who tortured her in “Death and the Maiden” and what the hitchhiker in “Knife in the Water” wants, how much the adapter of “Venus in Furs” has cravings for being dominated, are examples of uncertainties that are not resolved; “Chinatown” is an example of what seems like paranoid imaginings are grounded in reality. “The Ghost Writer” is another, a “paranoid thriller” in which the imagined plot is not imagined. And the title character in “The Pianist” is certainly not paranoid to fear the Nazis. Polanski’s X-rated(!) “Macbeth” features delusions based on guilt for the ascent to power, and “Tess” is a murderess. In contrast, Polanski himself as “The Tenant” is a character whose paranoia seems internally generated. (What is supposed to be “real” what delusional in “The Ninth Gate,” I couldn’t tell you!)

Going back to watch “Rosemary’s Baby,” I chose not to go with the flow of revealing a plot against the baby that Rosemary imagines is a spawn of Satan (she was impregnated when drugged, she believes) and neighbors and her elite physician are in a plot to sacrifice the baby once he is born. Is what we see her interpretation, a pretty paranoid one? That’s more plausible to me than believing what she thinks is happening and its approximate confirmation.

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Mia Farrow would not be my choice of someone ambivalent about motherhood, but she would also not seem to me to be who the devil would choose to bear his child. (I’ll readily acknowledge that I’m puzzled what Frank Sinatra saw in her, especially if Ava Gardner was not just the epitome of his type, but the love of his life!) Whether Rosemary has a vivid, dark imagination or is at the center of a conspiracy including her husband (played by John Cassavetes), Farrow is convincingly harrowed.

I find the voice of Ruth Gordon, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her part* (as the nosy neighbor Minnie Castevet), so grating that I couldn’t focus on whether she was doing exceptional acting. I was more impressed by Sidney Blackmer underplaying as her husband, Roman Castevet, and Maurice Evans as a friend who tries to warn Rosemary about Castavet.

Like most Polanski movies, “Rosemary’s Baby” seems to me to be longer than it needed to be: it runs 136 minutes. I have to mention the atmospheric (Ligetti-like) music suppied the movie by Krzysztof Komeda, Polanski’s musical collaborator until his death in April 1969 (a very macabre story in itself, a few months before the murder of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s pregnant wife; I don’t know why she was not cast as Rosemary, having starred with Polanski in The Fearless Vampire Killers and won accolades in the very successful “Valley of the Dolls”, both in 1967.

 

*I don’t think Sondra Locke’s part in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” was supporting and I don’t remember Kay Medford in “Funny Girl.” I’d have voted for Estelle Parsons in “Rachel, Rachel” or Lynn Carlin in “Faces” if given a chance (and a time machine…) The competition for best actress was considerable. Farrow was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for best actress, but not for the Oscar.

 

©2014, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Early (Polish) short films made by Roman Polanski

A second “bonus” disk  of the Criterion edition of “Knife in the Water” includes eight shorts (of a total of fifteen listed in IMDB) Polanski shot from film school in 1957 until he made “Knife in the Water” in 1962. Oddly, the insert brochure does not list them (only the chapters of the feature film; there is also an essay by Peter Cowie).

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The first two, “Murder” and “Teeth Smile “are very short, completely silent, student films. Their subject matter — murder and voyeurism — relate to the concerns of later Polanski films, but not particularly to “Knife in the Water,’ in which the youth avoids spying on the woman changing clothes.

The rest have jazzy soundtracks, but not dialogue. The most interesting one and the one that seems to me most to prefigure Polanski’s enduring theme is “Break Up the Dance,” an exercise in semi-verité in which Polanski arranged a dance and invited a Warsaw gang to crash it. The mayhem that follows looks very real, and apparently was.

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“The Lamp’ is an exercise in style (macabre destruction: a doll repair shop burning picturesquely). In contrast, When Angels Fall, at least until the silly ending references in the title, has not only atmosphere, but a story —- the life an old woman who is an attendant in a male restroom. The point is that she had a life, and even passion, tragedy and experiences of wars, and was not always the blank she appears to be. The flashbacks are in color, her current station is shown in black-and-white. Some things also happen in the present-day, black-and-white microcosm of the rest room, including a furtive sexual encounter.

The other later ones are comedies, albeit theatre of the absurd/ theatre of cruelty. The two men of “Two Men and a Wardrobe” are equals. Carrying a bulky piece of furniture does not make for a division of labor. Though one thinks of Oliver Hardy commanding Stan Laurel around,” Two Men and a Wardrobe” is dialogueless. However, there is violence and domination, and hopes are crushed. A gang of four attacks the two and after the leader knocks out one man, he has the scrawniest of his followers (Polanski himself) beat up the other. Polanski said the film “was about the intolerance of society toward somebody who is different.”

Carrying around a large piece of furniture makes the men stand out; they are welcomed nowhere, and eventually hammered down, but my interpretation is that no one wants the wardrobe. The hopes of the two men that they will be rewarded are dashed, and they are eventually set upon. I guess it could be argued that they are attacked for standing out, but if that was a political statement against an officially egalitarian regime (but one with the kind of class differences on display in “Knife in the Water”), it was excessively indirect. The cruelty of humans is also shown in stoning a cat.

The other two have a male master and a male servant. “Mammals” has no discernible point. I guess it is supposed to be slapstick (“pure cinema”), but it is far more primitive in conception and execution than Hollywood silent comedies of the 1920s. It is almost entirely shots of one man pulling a small sled with another man on it as falling snow obscures the picture.

The short film with the most direct resonances with “Knife in the Water “is “The Fat and the Lean,” a 15-minute portrait of a lean, barefoot, raggedly dressed servant (played by Polanski) who jumps around a lot, and his master (André Katelbach, who later appeared in Polanski’s “Cul de Sac”), a fat man who only leaves his rocking-chair on the lawn when the servant tries to escape to Paris (invariably failing). For a while, the servant is tethered to a goat. It is mildly entertaining, but there is a quantum leap from the shorts to “Knife in the Water.” It has aspects of being an exercise in style, too, but is an accomplished film about real-life conflicts.

 

©2003, 2018, Stephen O. Murray

“Knife in the Water”: Roman Polanski’s spooky feature-film debut

“Nóz w wodzie ” (Knife in the water), Roman Polanski’s first feature-length film, which is also his only Polish feature film, is a fairly minimalist (low-budget) portrayal of three people that takes place mostly on a sailboat. It begins with a buxom young woman (Jolanta Umecka) in very unflattering glasses driving and a meddlesome older man (Leon Niemczyk) interfering until she relinquishes the wheel to him. The third character, the only other human being who will be seen during the 95 minute running time, is standing on the deserted road, seeking a ride. The speeding motorist wants to scare the hitch-hiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) and nearly hits him. After getting out to upbraid him, the man tells the youth to get in the car.

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After they arrive at the dock and the youth carries a duffel bag for the woman, the man bids him to come along. Why? That the man is domineering was already evident in the car, and he is only too pleased to tell the slender blond boy that if there are two men on a boat, one must be in command and the other obey. The youth (unlike hitch-hikers in American movies, especially Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker) is not psychotic, even though he is the one who is armed (with the knife referenced in the title). He is not even particularly interested in a domination contest, and does not provide the man the satisfaction of fighting back or of breaking down. He mostly does as he is told, rebelling only when the two men are pulling the boat through a channel. It takes quite a bit to anger the youth, though the man keeps pushing.

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The wife mostly looks on and occasionally seeks to maintain peace, including volunteering to help pull the boat through the channel. The man seeks to humiliate the youth and flaunts his superior wealth and ability, though it is the youth who has the Big Knife (though that blatant phallic symbol is not what attracts the woman to him). Eventually, the man goes too far, and the title knife goes into the water. The other two have some measures of revenge, and the man is left guessing about both murder and cuckoldry while stalled at an intersection with one road leading to the local police station, the other home.

The man’s bullying is less blatant than that in the plays of Harold Pinter or Sam Shephard. Both the man and his wife seem to see the youth as resembling the man before he became successful (a writer with a private car and a boat in the lakes of northern Poland), though the youth does not seem to see his future in the man’s success and smugness. The aggression is less sibling rivalry than paternal irritation at youth (Laius sought to kill Oedipus, Oedipus did not seek to kill Laius until he was attacked for no apparent reason…) The man is too arrogant to consider the youth a rival for his woman. She is closer in age to the young man, but her husband assumes that status and wealth is what women seek, rather than youthful handsomeness and potency.

The woman, Jolanta Umecka, Polanski relates in a 2002 interview included on the disk, was not an actress. He says it was difficult to get her to react, calls her “bovine,” and recalls that he had to show her exactly what he wanted her to do in every scene. Perhaps he had not initially conceived the wife as being so slow to rebel, but her passivity and attempting to keep the peace between the males makes her eventual assertion more dramatic (and very Pinteresque).

 

Zygmunt Malanowicz had just completed acting school and his tentativeness works very well in the role of the hitch-hiking student puzzled by the aggressiveness of the older man. His voice seemed too high-pitched to Polanski and Polanski dubbed his own voice for the youth’s dialogue. Leon Niemczyk was an experienced professional actor and managed to play with the neophytes very well.

The three-person drama does not seem stagy. Although sailing very strangely (no doubt in part because of the difficulties of maintaining visual continuity with changing light and wind on a lake), there is sky and expanses of water in many of the shots, though a fairly substantial part of the movie is filmed in the cramped cabin of the boat and inside the car (a Mercedes interior, a Peugeot exterior, BTW). Polanski takes credit for framing the shots and acknowledges the challenges photographer Jerzy Lipman overcame while filming the boat and on the boat. The jazz score of Krztsztof Komeda does much to establish the mood of vague menace.

As accomplished a debut film as “Knife in the Water “is, I think claims that it is Polanski’s best film are silly. It is an atmospheric, low-budget film of a simple story, not comparable to the complexities of Chinatown, Macbeth, or Tess, etc. And for a three-character drama of shifting power relations, Polanski’s film of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden is more consequential and accomplished (with particularly memorable performances by Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley).

The Criterion edition, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and digitally remastered, shows off the splendid cinematography. The soundtrack has also been cleaned up, and new subtitles translated by Polanski himself (though there are some lines that are not translated). Criterion is synonymous with excellence in restoration and supplementation of classic films, and this DVD further embellishes the Criterion label.

I find it annoying that the step function was disabled at Polanski’s request -— and not just during the playback of the feature, as the booklet says, but for the short films and the juxtaposed interviews with Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski. Skolimowski developed the screenplay with Polanski from Polanski’s original two-page story and was the physical model for the student. I wanted to accelerate through the opening credits and to go back a couple of times to make sure I read the dialogue correctly

The half-hour featurette is very interesting (and, obviously, I have drawn information from it). Besides discussing how the movie was made and the technical challenges involved, Polanski recalls that Poland’s then dictator, Gomulka, hated the movie, allegedly throwing an ashtray at the screen when it was shown for him. Although there are no references to politics (above the micropolitics of jousting testosterone bearers), showing class differences in the supposedly classless society was not appreciated. However, if the regime so hated the movie, I wonder how it became the choice of the Polish communist state for Academy Award consideration. (It was nominated, and justly lost to “8 1/2.”)

 

©2012, 2018, Stephen O. Murray