In the six year period separating his Hollywood hits Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, Roman Polanski directed only two films. The first was MacBeth. That film was critically acclaimed, offering a dark and bloody take on Shakespeare that reflected his grim mood after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s followers. The second film was What?, a critical and commercial bomb that mixed the European sex comedy with unclassifiable weirdness. The latter was written off as being a self-indulgent mess but it also reflects Polanski’s dark take on humanity as much as MacBeth, albeit in a fractured and obscure sort of way.
The premise of What? is essentially Alice In Wonderland crossbred with a dash of Candide and the sex comedies that were popular in Italy throughout the ’70s. The episodic storyline, concocted by Polanski with regular writing partner Gerard Brach, focuses on the travails on Nancy (Sydne Rome), a spacy American free-thinker stumbling her way through Europe. After narrowly dodging a trio of would-be rapists, she ends up in a seaside villa owned by elderly millionaire Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith). She finds herself bewildered and preyed upon by the home’s tenants, which include sleazy ex-pimp Alex (Marcello Mastroianni) and cranky diving enthusiast Mosquito (Polanski).
The results are lovingly made, with excellent Cinemascope photography by Marcello Gatti and Giuseppe Ruzzolini, but they keep the audience at a distance. The key scene of the film might be when Nancy takes a seat at a dinner table, only for all the others to whisper and giggle without explaining what is so funny. That represents how Polanski treats the audience, denying the hapless Nancy any kind of character arc and gently making his way through a set of characters and narrative elements that never add up. There’s plenty of casual nudity and periodic bizarre gags, like Alex demanding to be whipped while wearing a tiger skin, but the film never settles in on a tone or a narrative that the viewer can follow.
That said, the curious and defiant nature of What? seems to be deliberate. Take away the narrative set dressing of the sex comedy elements and Polanski is really presenting a dark vision of life: our protagonist struggles to apply philosophy and logic to an erratic existence full of predatory people and disconnected events. What? has been accused of misogyny for its treatment of Nancy but the real truth here is that the film is misanthropic. None of Nancy’s tormentors are presented as sympathetic or self-aware. Everybody is on their own, left to their own devices, and their lives are as chaotic and random as the film that gives them a home.
Thus, What? is best approached as a quirky experiment from a director exploring his dark take on the world in a lighter setting. It won’t satisfy film buffs the way Polanski’s more careful and ambitious work does but it is definitely of a piece with the rest of his filmography.
Blu-Ray Notes: Severin has recently issued this film in high-definition via a new U.S. blu-ray edition. The transfer does well by the lush photography, bringing out the color of the seaside setting, and the LPCM presentation of the mono soundtrack gets the job done in a cleanly-mixed style. The Italian mono mix is also available, albeit without subtitles.
Severin has also carried over the extras from an earlier U.K. DVD of this title. Rome appears for an interview (16:46). She looks back fondly as she talks about the skullduggery involved in landing the role, how Polanski was as a director and dealing with the challenge of nudity. Another interview (21:49) features composer Claudio Gizzi. It’s a very interesting chat in which he discusses how he used his training to adapt classical pieces for the sound track. He also talks about his work with Luchino Visconti and Paul Morrissey. The final interview (16:03) focuses on Marcello Gatti. It’s a lively piece with plenty of details on how Polanski worked on the set plus an explanation of why he is co-cinematographer on the film. The extras are rounded out by a theatrical trailer.