Produced By: Carlo Ponti, Joseph Levin
Blu-Ray Distributed By: Severin Films
Initial Release: December 7, 1972 (Italy), October 3, 1973 (US)
Blu-ray Release: April 26, 2016
Director: Roman Polanski
Reviewed By James M. Dubs
I’ll watch anything…including What? (*Ahem)
I’ll watch anything, including What?
It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, right? For a moment, pretend it is. Now imagine I never deliver the punchline and I simply end the review right here.
That would be a bizarre film review, but perfectly exemplifies everything that puzzles but intrigues me about Roman Polanski’s What?
What? attempts to be a comedy. An erotic comedy? Maybe? The genre may be up for debate, but the fact that What? makes less sense than Donnie Darko isn’t. Yet Severin Films has created a worthy release for…well I have no idea for whom Roman Polanski made this film.
Film Rating: ?????
You know what makes me laugh, and I mean go completely bananas? Attempted rape! And since everyone loves rape as much as Roman Polanski, then everyone will be thrilled to know that this comedy begins with three Italians attempting to rape American, hippie-hitchhiker chick, Nancy (Sydne Rome). Fortunately for Nancy, the rape is thwarted when one of the would-be attackers accidentally steps on his glasses, causing him limited vision, and he mistakenly mounts and attempts to penetrate one of his partners in crime. Nancy escapes to an unspecified seaside Italian villa with only her diary and the clothes on her back.
Once in the “safety” of the villa, Nancy is given a room furnished with a beautiful ocean view, a full bathroom, and a peep hole above the bed. As she undresses, Nancy sees Alex (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2) wearing a bathrobe and peering through her window. He signals to her that he likes what he sees. Nancy scrambles to cover the windows but the curtains collapse on top of her and Alex disappears as quickly as he emerged. Despite the onslaught of harassment and assault in the first 10 minutes of the movie, Nancy, as optimistic and lighthearted as ever, feels secure enough to take a few moments to write in her diary, strips down to her birthday suit, and goes to bed. But before she falls asleep, she remembers the peep hole and slides her pencil through it. As she closes her eyes, the pencil is slowly pulled through the hole by an unseen pervert (but one can assume it is Alex).
Morning comes, Nancy rises, the pencil is back in the hole, and someone has absconded with her shirt. Bare breasted and without her luggage, Nancy does what anyone else would do. She leaves the security of her room and wanders the halls until she finds a breakfast table where she helps herself to toast and has another encounter with Alex. Fortunately they have napkins so she now has something to cover her breasts while she meets and interacts with more residents of the villa who include a priest, a pianist, the elderly owner, and a handful of perverts, to name a few. The rest of the film comprises of bizarre, sometimes sexually charged, encounters with the residents (one of whom is Polanski himself playing a ping-pong enthusiast named Mosquito) and many, many more glimpses of Sydne Rome’s bare breasts, ultimately crescendoing with Nancy running through the villa completely naked and with one leg painted blue!
The journey from attempted rape to completely naked with a blue leg is a weird and incomprehensible one. The world Nancy inhabits is not grounded or rooted in our reality and becomes more abstract like a dream where normal rules and physics don’t apply. Nor is the audience every really told or set up to understand this alternate reality. It’s pure Polanski madness unfiltered and splashed on the screen.
I can only imagine what producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levin must have thought when they first screened What? It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s an abbreviated response from the producers shouting “What the fuhhhh…?!?” Marketing the film must have been a nightmare as well. For your positives you have the renowned Director who made The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby. Negatively, you have a feature film that is completely incomprehensible in any typical narrative sense and plays more like art house experimentation. In the US they re-titled and marketed the film as Diary of Forbidden Dreams which proves to be an incredibly appropriate title but still doesn’t prepare the audience for the descent into the rabbit hole. I’m certainly not the first person to make comparisons to Alice In Wonderland, but What? plays more like a version of Alice in which the title character starts in Wonderland, and descended into an even more fucked up Madnessland.
“Madness” is a word I find myself coming back to in this review. Most of you are aware of the notorious events that transpired on August 9, 1969 when Sharon Tate and 4 others were brutally murdered by the Manson family in Polanski’s home. Tate was 8.5 months pregnant with their son. In 1971, Polanski released Macbeth, his first film after the murders, and a brutally violent depiction of the Shakespeare classic. Macbeth was then followed up by What? in 1972 where Polanski explores his “erotic fantasies”? I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t have a degree to practice it and don’t claim to be one. However, if a tragedy like losing a wife/son to a brutal murder doesn’t drive oneself mad, what else could? So I suspect What? is, in part, Polanski’s externalization of the turmoil and conflict raging within and an attempt to bring some levity back into his life.
But then again, maybe I’m trying to do what the producers did. That is make some sense out of something nonsensical. What? isn’t logical, and defies explanation or answers. Searching for any will only leave you more frustrated. As a pure experience in art and expression it is a masterpiece and the director has the ability to make madness entertaining. I suspect that Polanski’s views on women are cruel and abusive, but that’s mainly due to the treatment of Nancy in this “fantasy.” But again, I’m no “pshrink” so I could be talking out of my ass.
I can’t give What? a typical rating, because it doesn’t play by the same rules as conventional films. Critics have more or less panned the film but they’re viewing it in very conventional terms. If you watch it expecting the cohesion of The Pianist or Chinatown then you will hate it. However, if you allow the madness to wash over you then you may discover a strange enjoyment in Polanski’s fantasy. What? never bored me and I kept watching despite being completely befuddled.
Video & Audio Rating:
Severin Films blu-ray release of What? dazzles with a transfer that is immaculate and surprisingly vibrant for its age. Marcello Gatti’s cinematography is breathtaking and it only helps that the film’s location is incredibly exotic and beautiful, because Gatti captures the villa’s features and landscapes so beautifully that one can’t help but feel like these strange characters inhabit Heaven on Earth. The image routinely provides a lush palette of colors, incredible detail in the foreground and background of the frame, and a fine natural level of grain is present throughout.
The disc includes two audio tracks, the primary one being a linear PCM 2.0 track in English. Hidden in the “Special Features” section is also a link to view the film with the Italian language track. However, there are no subtitles available on the disc so this “extra” isn’t really worth much unless your preferred language of choice is Italian. The quality of the English track is mostly insubstantial, but gets the job done providing clear dialogue, sound effects, and of course the music performed by Composer Claudio Gizzi.
The obvious omission from the set is the Director himself. More traditional film fans will want Polanski to explain himself for this apparent mess, but since his statutory rape conviction in 1977, and his subsequent fleeing from justice after the judge changed the terms of his plea agreement, I’m guessing it’s either too difficult or too costly to pin the Director down.
Therefore Severin films turns its attention to other key players in the film’s production and offers the following supplements:
- Sydne in Wonderland – Interview with Star Sydne Rome.
- Memories of a Young Pianist – Interview with Composer Claudio Gizzi.
- A Surreal Pop Movie – Interview with Cinematographer Marcello Gatti.
- Theatrical Trailer
All three interviews are between 15-20 minutes in length and have a similar arc where the interviewee discusses early career starts, how they were introduced to Polanski, their role in the production of What?, their musings on the film and its critical reaction, and their career following What?
So what is the punchline to What? Beats the holy hell outta me? But I suspect there isn’t one. The film seems completely self aware of its absurdities and content with being a dream-like fantasy. This may be Polanski’s fantasy, fucked up as it may be, but we’ve all had those weird dreams that we escape from only when our alarm clock sounds. And that is the most tangible way to express what What? can be.
It’s impossible to classify for whom this movie is made. I don’t necessarily recommend it to Roman Polanski fans unless you’re a hardcore admirer, or want to view it as a fringe oddity. And you can’t overthink its contents because it’s pure madness without logic or reason. The world contained within is one of bizarre actions that share no connection with our rules or laws.
And yet, I want to recommend it. I think people should discover it and Severin Films has done an amazing job bringing it to light and providing an incredible assortment of extras. So keep an open mind and hit play on What?
And that isn’t a question or the set up for a joke.