Last week, after taking in the second day of NYFF press screenings, Michael Tully gave me a homework assignment; to write a single, unifying essay about Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika and Roman Polanksi’s Knife In The Water. This is my rather futile attempt to earn a passing grade.
This coming Saturday, The New York Film Festival is about to unleash one of the most amazing film retrospectives in a long, long time when Jean Renoir’s The Rules of The Game (swoon) kicks off a 25 film look at 50 years of Janus Films. There are few companies in cinema that have maintained a singular excellence over the past 50 years (companies come, companies go, the films last forever), but whenever I see Janus’ two-faced coin logo at the start of a screening, I know I am in for a treat. Have they ever let me down? Before I type another word, I want to extend both my deepest thanks and congratulations to the team at Janus Films (and Criterion) for their hard work in building new audiences for some of the best films in the history of cinema. Without a company like Janus (and theaters like The Film Forum, BAM and The Walter Reade) championing these works, I am not sure I or most people my age would have found our way to the classics. Last week, Richard Peña and the NYFF shared two films with the press and industry in order to showcase two of the true gems of a truly bejewelled retrospective; Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water (in a stunning new print) followed by a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s little-seen (by me anyway) Summer With Monika. Seeing both films back to back, projected in luminous black and white on the Walter Reade’s screen, was quite a shock if only because of they felt completely modern and relevant; Neither film has lost an ounce of timeliness.
First up was Polanski’s debut feature film, Knife In The Water. Made in Poland in 1962, the film justifiably launched Polanski into the world of major film artists; The filmmaking is so audacious and stylish, so assured, it is almost impossible to believe that this is Polanski’s first film. Knife tells the story of a bourgeois couple who, en route to the local marina to spend a weekend sailing, pick up a young drifter after he aggressively flags down their car. Macho control freak Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) taunts the young man (played with a perfect balance of menace and innocence by Zygmunt Malanowicz) while Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), Andrzej’s intelligent, patient and beautiful wife tries to diffuse the tension between the men. When the group arrives at the marina, the young man tries to leave, but Andrzej sees the opportunity to teach condescending life-lessons to the young man and, unable to control himself, ends up inviting him to join the couple on the boat for their sailing expedition.
Polanski at work on Knife In The Water
It is at the very moment when the sailboat leaves shore that Polanski begins to soar as a Director, combining tense, claustrophic camera work in a very small, confined space (basically the deck of a two person sail boat) with stunning, fluid shots of the action on board and in the water. One shot in particular, a close up of the young man at the stern of the ship which suddenly peels off as the boat turns away from the camera, is more thrilling than anything you’ve seen in a long, long time. Another, featuring the young man laying Christ-like on the deck, his head encircled by a coil of rope, evokes Catholic iconography and painting with delirious beauty. Of course, this being a Polanski film, the thrills aren’t simply visual, and the film drips with sexual tension as Andrzej’s mastery of the boat is challenged by the potential danger of the young man’s titular knife. As Andrzej humiliates the young man (an inept sailor who has never been on a boat before) and seeks to keep his wife’s attentions from the younger, more attractive drifter, the competition heats up and things get dangerous.
Nowhere To Hide: Zygmunt Malanowicz in Roman Polanski’s Knife In The Water
At the center of Polanksi’s film is the deeply rooted desire for sexual mastery in both men, the need to assert their sexual dominance over the other in order to assure themselves that the unknowable, sexually mature Krystyna can be convinced of their worth. When the young man’s knife (his source of self-assuredness and a survival tool for him) falls into the water, the entire equation (that is, Krystyna’s affection and attention) is suddenly thrown up for grabs as the men are literally lost at sea. It is in this moment that the locus of the film shifts and Krystyna is allowed to assert her own desires (and to take over the boat and guide both men to safety), and she fufills her need to punish Andrzej for his refusal to allow her her rightful place in the relationship (see the film’s opening shot, when Andrezj forces her to stop driving the car so that he can take over. Always a big mistake). When Krystyna allows the young man to make love to her, she re-establishes his lost confidence, gains revenge on her braggart of a husband, and proves to be the film’s most powerful figure, a woman among boys, assuredly earning the last word in domination.
So, too, does Ingmar Bergman capture the unknowable sexual desire of a young woman in his 1953 breakthrough Summer With Monika (compellingly titled Monika, The Story of a Bad Girl for its release in the USA. Russ Meyer would have been proud). The films tells the story of an amour fou gone horribly wrong (but then again, don’t they all?) between the hard-scrabble, working class Monika (an unbelievably young and gorgeous Harriet Andersson) and Harry, the young stiff whose desire to run his own life and escape the bourgeois expectations of urban living leads him to ruin. Monika and Harry start off on the right track; after meeting in a café, the young couple head to the movies and toward a long, seemingly normal courtship. But trouble lurks around every corner; Monika’s family treats her like a child and forces her to flee their domestic arrangement and into Harry’s eager arms, while Harry, a romantic whose need for respect is only matched by his refusal to do what is necessary to earn it, can’t hold down his job with the local porcelain distributor. Monika also has a sexual past (unlike Harry) which Bergman makes manifest in the character of Lille (John Harryson), the local tough who isn’t afraid to plunk Harry with a stiff punch to the jaw in order to show him who’s the boss.
And here we go again; Harry and Monika flee the familial and sexual baggae by boarding Harry’s father’s boat (take that, Freud!) and setting off from Stockholm for the islands off the Swedish coast. As the young couple begin their lives together, their aquatic idyll couldn’t be more perfect; they swim, camp, forrage for mushrooms and food, and make love whenever they please. While Harry is at the helm of the boat, it is clear that this work is in service to Monika’s desires, and as the days and nights float by, things start to go sour. As Harry and Monika picnic away from their boat (and the domain of Harry’s mastery) Lille shows up and trashes the boat, dumping their belongings into the sea, breaking windows and setting the boat on fire. Harry notices the smoke and discovers Lille, fighting him tooth and nail for control of the boat and the love of Monika, when she arrives on the scene to knock Lille out with a swift blow of a frying pan to the head. As the young couple try to re-establish their blissful experience, the violation of the boat has set everything askew in their lives. Harry’s mastery has been challenged, his control and confidence shaken by the loss of control and Monika grows emboldened to assert her own dominance.
Bad Girl: Harriet Andersson as Monika in Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika
Soon, bad things happen (as they must) and the couple return to the reality of Stockholm (as they must) where Monika’s dissatisfaction with Harry grows into an itch that only Lille can scratch. Much like Polanski’s film, Summer With Monika derives its narrative thrust from our desire to see an untenable situation hurtle itself toward a happy ending but in both cases, a sexual pretender bites off more than he can chew. In Bergman’s world, the happy ending simply isn’t going to happen, and we know it clearly and irrefutably; using expressionistic lighting (may I even suggest Monika as a film noir?), Bergman makes clear the fate of his characters in two stunning close-ups. One, which sees Harry walk smack dab into a beautiful lighting scheme which highlights his eyes (and fades the world around him to black) is the perfect reveal for a man who suddenly comprehends his own fate. When Monika gets the same treatment, we see the lighting differently; The rising darkness behind her jet-black hair merely an expression of her long-understood intention to do whatever she must to make herself feel whole. In this sense, Monika is a long way (13 years and 19 films to be exact) from Persona‘s psychological realism and visual fireworks, and instead seems more akin to Smiles of A Summer Night in its powerful use of a seemingly pre-destined conclusion to somehow invest us deeply in the film’s story. Monika doesn’t feel nearly as revolutionary as Knife In The Water, but as an important stop on the road to Persona, it fits perfectly into the Bergman corpus.
Now, only 23 more films to go in the Janus series. I can’t encourage you enough to grab tickets for as many of these films as you can. Think of it this way; It’s your chance to re-live the glory days of the Cinematheque, to meet your friends on rain-soaked autumn streets as you spill from a screening, headed to the bar to discuss and argue, your mind and heart on fire with nothing but cinema. Think I’m overstating things? Take a chance and dare to confront greatness.