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After the personal tragedy suffered by Roman Polanski in 1969, the director's next two films would seem to document the extremes of his life experience. His 1971 Macbeth was a literal bloodbath that brought all of Shakespeare's off-stage slaughter front and center before the camera. Reviews couldn't help but theorize that Polanski was exorcising his violent demons -- or indulging them.
Polanski's next film, produced by Carlo Ponti and set in sunny Italy, went in an entirely different direction. Italian movies of the early 1970s were awash in previously forbidden nudity, in everything from grisly horror films to insipid sex comedies. Polanski and his writing partner Gérard Brach set out to make an absurdist sex romp to top them all, an erotic version of Alice in Wonderland. What? (Che?) stars the pixie-ish Sydne Rome (La ragazza di latta) as Nancy, a hitchhiking American tourist who evades some young rapists by escaping down a private cable car to a lavish villa perched on a sunny Italian cliff. Unable to communicate with the servants, Nancy is accepted by the male residents as something lovely that's drifted in. Everybody's either too self-absorbed or too intent on sex to listen to Nancy, and she's too polite to insist that they do. Whenever she falls asleep, another article of clothing disappears. Until she finds an errant pajama top in the hallway, Nancy is forced to walk around with her diary over her chest.
It takes this nubile Little Girl Lost a couple of days to realize that the villa is owned by the aged Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith), a shut-in attended by a German nurse while his hedonistic offspring indulge their various eccentricities. Two cheerful sons live upstairs. One cooks while the other engages in constant sex with a female we never get a clear look at. Mosquito (Roman Polanski), an odd fellow with an unclear relationship to the household, sleeps in a hammock and pulls practical jokes on the other two. Meanwhile, various hangers-on wander through the villa, showing up for the pleasant meals served on the ocean-view porch: a disapproving priest (Guido Alberti), a statuesque French nudist and her companion, and various non-communicative workmen. Without provocation, a painter paints one of Nancy's legs blue. Middle-aged Giovanni (Romolo Valli of Giù la testa) calls Nancy a whore but then plays a piano duet with her.
Nancy's main attraction is Alex, the tall and handsome son who wastes no time seducing her. Alex's brothers say that he's a pimp with VD, and that his "mosquito bites" are really syphilitic sores. Alex cops only to the pimp charge, insisting that that part of his life was all over a long, long time ago -- seven months. Nancy responds positively to Alex's infantile sex games, which involve dressing up in a tiger skin and a gendarme's uniform. Nancy also doesn't seem to mind Alex's violent tendencies. He asks her to whip him and slaps her several times. On the beach Alex cuffs Nancy's wrists to her ankles and whips her bare bottom with a painful switch. That's not so much fun.
What? is billed as a comedy but proceeds like a half-dreamed nightmare, sort of Kafka-lite with a heavy dose of eroticism (but no on-screen sex per se). Roman Polanski's notion of comedy has always been more of an uneasy affinity for the absurd. His film school shorts from Poland bear this out, especially Two Men and a Wardrobe, and his mordantly amusing Cul-de-sac quickly divides audiences. The Fearless Vampire Killers has few big laughs, yet was foolishly marketed as a comedy; it straddles the line between the amusingly weird and the weirdly unsettling. Polanski's later absurdist efforts, particularly the expensive flop Pirates, pleased nobody. Yet his bizarre The Tenant often blurs the line between horror and comedy.
What? surprises us with completely unexpected developments, and if laughter results, it's likely to be a residual side effect. When that crazy painter slaps a broad blue stripe down the back of Nancy's naked leg, it's really one more mini-tragedy -- she's just lost her pants to some practical joker and has been wandering around the house practically nude for two days. The funniest bits are just throwaways. An ancient, senile housekeeper just stares when Nancy tries to ask questions. Thinking that Nancy is complaining about Mosquitoes, the woman reaches for the wrong aerosol can and sprays shaving cream all over the room.
The movie encourages creative interpretation. The private cable car is the equivalent of Alice's rabbit hole, and the people she finds in the villa exhibit definite Lewis Carroll behaviors. Nancy has two separate encounters in which Giovanni talks about the same things (arthritis, young women without morals), ending up with the two of them playing the same classical music on the piano. Nancy realizes that it's a deja vu moment become real, but Giovanni won't listen to her. A "benign" variation on the same pattern happens in a repetition of Nancy serving Alex coffee, after which he crushes a ping-pong ball. The isolated villa with its strange inhabitants acting out private obsessions -- sometimes repeating them -- bears a structural similarity to, of all things, Danse macabre, a haunted house movie in which damned souls reenact their worldly sins.
What? is airy, light and maddeningly illogical, with the sunny villa being as anti-Gothic a location as one could imagine. Nothing makes sense to Nancy, especially not Alex. Marcello Mastroianni plays him as a somewhat infantile, aristocratic slacker. Wide-eyed Sydne Rome, with her curly hair and unavoidable body, transcends expectations with her easygoing acceptance of the insanity around her. The part was described during casting as "Little Annie Fannie" but Nancy is not that far removed from a certain kind of adventuress of the day. Rome is perfectly natural when reacting with puzzlement to various indecent requests from the libidinous cast -- but she also cheerfully obliges old Joseph when he asks her to bare various body parts. Only Roman Polanski could make a scene like that into something positive and generous.
Severin's PAL Region 2 DVD of What? -- not playable in standard American DVD machines -- is a fine enhanced transfer of one of Roman Polanski's hardest-to-see features. Colors are excellent, from Sydne Rome's pallid blue eyes to the rich interiors of the dream-villa where the film is set. The clear audio track is predominantly in English, with occasional Italian we aren't meant to understand. The source picture element is an Italian original, as brief inserts of Nancy's English-narrated diary entries illogically turn out to be written in Italian! Variant versions of What? are said to exist, but this release appears to be full-length.
Severin's DVD shows the difference between an indifferent Public Domain disc and one properly licensed from rights holders and given a quality presentation. Besides the spotless transfer (which appears to be HD originated and free of PAL's usual 4% speed-up), the menus are attractively designed to mimic Nancy's diary pages. An original Italian trailer is included, along with three thorough and professional featurette docus. Sydne in Wonderland benefits from a new interview with the actress, who still has a twinkle in her eye and remembers the film as a joyous experience.
Disc producer David Gregory also provides interviews with composer Claudio Gizzi and cinematographer Marcello Gatti (The Battle of Algiers, Queimada!). We're told that the villa in the film is decorated with art masterpieces from the collection of producer Carlo Ponti. He'd deliver the paintings in the morning, and then take them home every night after filming wrapped! 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Note: I don't normally review Region 2 PAL films and asked for this one by mistake, not realizing that it wasn't an American release. I don't regret it in the least as I had only seen What? pan-scanned on the Z Channel many years ago and had forgotten how good it is. At this wirting Severin has not licensed the film for Region One.
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