The films of Roman Polanski are at once bold, insightful, tense, and energetic. He is a brilliant writer who’s stories examine the complexities of human relationships. He is also a great director who uses the camera to bring us directly into the middle of these relationships. Many of his films deal with disturbed people or dysfunctional relationships (sometimes both of these). But the characters and relationships are not completely out of the realistic human range of behavior. Perhaps that is why some find his works so deeply disturbing. Films like “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby” delve into the mind of the disturbed protagonist who imagines a horrific world, and yet the viewer cant quite tell if it is purely imagination or not. “Knife in the Water” and “Bitter Moon” are two Polanski directed films that deal with dysfunctional or tense human relationships. Even though these film were produced thirty years apart, the similarities are striking.
Although both screenplays were co-written by Polanski, the later film, “Bitter Moon,” was adapted from the book written by French author Pascal Bruckner. With the themes of passion, obsession, and tension prevalent, it is not hard to see why Polanski was drawn to the story. The two films have some obvious similarities in theme. They are both about a long time married couple who use a boat trip as an escape- a way to bring their crumbling marriage back together. Both couples encounter a third party who seeks their help in some way and proceeds to change the nature of their trip.
The two wives in each film seem to be the outside observers throughout both movies. They add their clever commentary every now and again, but seem to stay out of the action. That is, until just before the climax of the story where their actions (both in a sexual manner) are a key element. There are similarities in the relationship between the two men as well. There is a competitive camaraderie between them. However, there is a more of a difference in motivation and demeanor of the male characters than that of the two female leads. The real difference lies in the scope of the films and the element of obsession that lies at the heart of “Bitter Moon.”
“Knife in the Water” starts with the married couple, Andrzej and Christine. They are driving in a car on the way to the dock where there is a boat waiting for them. The two are expressionless. Andrzej puts his arm around Christine and gives her a kiss on the cheek. It is a forced gesture that she shrugs off. She generally keeps her eyes steadily on the road. There is obvious tension in the way that the couple sit together, but there is no obvious overt discomfort in their mannerisms. It suggests that the couple has been together for a long time. It also suggests that there have been problems and ill feelings towards each other that the pair have grown used to.
In the beginning of “Bitter Moon” Nigel and Fiona are on a pleasure cruise. They are standing together on the deck. Fiona gives Nigel a kiss on the cheek and he accepts it in a routine way. Their mannerisms give the impression that they are also comfortable with each other. They chat, stand close, and give each other smiles, but those things seem forced. The smiles seem to be expected or habit which soon fade when the gaze is away from the partner. They keep averting their gaze from the other as if their minds were some place else.
A young hitchhiker jumps out in front of the car, in “Knife in the Water,” both startling and angering Andrzej. He uses the incident to become angry with Christine. He argues that she would have hit him if she were driving- no, she would have picked him up. Fine, he will pick him up just to spite her. So, he stops to pick him up. The hitchhiker is a young handsome man who is unaware of the situation that he has just become a part of. The story continues. It becomes a triangle rather than a two sided dynamic.
In “Bitter Moon” the character of Mimi acts as the Hitchhiker in “Knife in the Water.” The couple sees it upon themselves to help her out. However reluctantly in spirit, willingly they help her. Like the Hitchhiker, Mimi is a stranger who needs help from the couple. Unlike him she does not ask for it directly but is offered it first. Also unlike him, she is not stepping naively into their world- it is the couple who naively fall into hers.
Christine and Fiona both seem to be non-participating observers of their husbands follies. The openly disapprove of their husbands behavior with a glance or a comment. They are brutally honest in their observations (Oscar, Mimi’s Husband in “Bitter Moon,” is also this way). At one point Christine says to the young hitchhiker “you want to be just like him (her husband), don’t worry- someday you will.” And Fiona tells Nigel that he is transparent in the way he lusts for Mimi- his hiding it only makes him look more ridiculous. However, they seem content to allow them to continue in their trivialities. Perhaps because they know that their protests will come to no avail. They are unhappy with their situations and yet they do nothing to directly effect them.
When Christine tells Andrzej that she has been unfaithful to him he only laughs. He refuses to believe this for accepting this would be for him to accept the relationships flaws. By accepting the flaws in his marriage Andrzej would have to accept his own flaws as well. In “Bitter Moon,” Nigel also denies and is shocked by many truths or thruths revealed as a way of denying his own flaws. Unlike Andrzej, who acts boorish and overbearingly, Nigel is sort of a tittering, stuttering doofus who is always trying to downplay his actions (making it a perfect role for Hugh Grant). Though Oscar may be crude and abrasive, he is much more like Christine and Fiona than like Andrzej or Nigel.
Oscar places himself within the action more directly and aggressively than the two women, but he is a careful observer of Nigels reactions. He is blunt about his intentions and he knows what people think of him. Nigel and Andrezej are neither up front nor able to face truths about themselves. Nigel pretends to be the reluctant recipient of Oscar and Mimi’s attention when in reality he relishes the stories and games. He repeatedly acts shocked and states that he will not stand for their behavior and yet he lingers.
In a similar way, Andrzej picks up the hitchhiker reluctantly, yet secretly he sees it as an opportunity to prove himself. He is an experienced sailor and he knows that the hitchhiker is not. In a few instances Andrzej attempts to show the boy how to sail. He tries to act like a sort of mentor to him- it is a way to make himself feel important. In his sense he is like Oscar- the more experienced, older storyteller.In “Bitter Moon,” Oscar needs Nigel to help him because Oscar is confined to a wheelchair. This is also, in a sense, a type of authority assertion on the part of the man seeking help of the man who helps. But, because Oscar lacks the same insecurities that Andrzej possesses, his assertion is more real- more honest. This differece is a way in which Andrzej is less like Oscar and more like Nigel- self-conscious and self-important.
The biggest difference between the two film is the scope. “Knife in the Water” has fewer elements. There are only three characters throughout the entire film. The shots are composed in a series of triangles with a character in the background and two in the foreground (or vice versa). The characters are on a small sailboat, on a lake. All the action, which takes place in one day, revolves around them.
In “Bitter Moon” everything is bigger. The characters are on a bigger boat. They are on the ocean. There is one more main character, and a myriad of subsidiary characters. Along with the main plot, which spans several days, there is the story within the story which spans several years. If “Knife in the Water” exists as a triangle, “Bitter Moon” exists as many lines that branch out in all directions.
The story that Oscar tells Nigel in “Bitter Moon” is one of obsession. His sexual obsession for Mimi. Her emotional obsession of him. This leads to Nigel’s obsession for her and knowledge of her. The story slowly reveals itself to be darker and scarier every moment. Yet the camera stays at a distance from Oscar and Mimi that allows us to be safe voyeurs. Friction, tension, and dishonesty (whether with oneself or others) is the prevalent theme of “Knife in the Water.” Long, still, silent shots of the characters interacting (or failing to do so) paired with quick tight shots of the two men challenging each other (with the knife game or the sailboat) conveys this to the viewer. Both films and the cinematic styles are a testament to the fact that Roman Polanski is one of the greatest cinematic explorers of the darker side of human nature.