A few weeks back a friend and I were chatting about this whole Polanski business and the reaction to it and such. After reassuring each other with compulsory remarks such as, "Well, he is a fugitive from justice, after all" and "The timing might be weird, but the warrant still applies," we reverted to our decadent cinephilic selves.
"You know, the one thing I never got to see, that I'm curious about, is that thing What?. Although I hear it's pretty terrible."
"What I'm wondering is whether or not Pirates is as bad as I remember it."
It's for addressing such questions, among other things, that the Foreign Region DVD Report exists. Although after subjecting myself to What?, I think I'm gonna wait a few weeks before tackling Pirates.
What? is the second film Polanski made after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate in 1969; the first, a gore-slathered adaptation of Macbeth, was taken by many as an uncomfortably direct response to the Manson-initiated slaughter that took Tate's life and shattered Polanski. His return to Europe in its wake saw him drowning his sorrows in not-unpredictable ways. What? seems to have been conceived on a whim involving Polanski wanting to build a picture around a Mediterranean villa belonging to producer Carlo Ponti. The scenario concocted by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gerald Brach is a grievously ill-advised attempt to meld the absurdist/existentialist mode of Polanski's early shorts (most notable Two Men And A Wardrobe) with the Playboy Philosophy that Polanski picked up in Hollywood. (It was Hugh Hefner, as it happens, who was the major backer of Polanski's Macbeth.) While the film contains varied nods to Alice in Wonderland—frequently nude leading lady Sydne Rome's descent down the "rabbit hole" is achieved via a mini-tram to the villa, and too many scenes here involve dyspeptic eccentrics gathered around a table talking nonsense to each other and Rome—the dominant mode here is of a particularly unfunny "Little Annie Fanny" page. In an engaging interview on the new Severin DVD of the film, Rome reveals that Polanski in fact told her that he character, Nancy, was a cross between Annie and an old school teacher. And Rome's curls in the film seem directly patterned after Annie's.
Now I yield to almost no one in my admiration for the work of cartoonists Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, but find me someone who will tell you that the Little Annie Fanny cartoons (for which they claimed Candide as an inspiration!) represented their best work, and I'll work very hard to find someone who'll tell you that What? is Polanski's best work. (Actually, there's at least one IMDB user who seems to think so. It takes all kinds.)
Once Rome's character descends to the villa (running from a group of would-be rapists), a small menagerie of unusual characters (including a bruised-up Polanski, playing "Mosquito") present themselves to her, generally commenting on her state of undress. (Her skin-tight t-shirt was all but ripped from her during the abortive assault.) Marcello Mastroianni's Alex—a one-time, pimp, apparently—approaches her and says, "Perfect. Perfect. What I really go for…is volume. Although I shouldn’t forget about shape of course. I really couldn’t see them properly until now but they really are first class."
"What?" Rome's Nancy replies.
Part of the joke, such as it is, is seeing the super-suave Mastroianni behave so crassly. There's a direct echo of Repulsion's "all men are pigs" ethos here, except it's wedded to a complete lack of empathy for the lead character, who's pretty much as blank as can be and largely an object of ridicule.
One suspects that Polanski and Brach wanted to recapture some of the antic feel of the much-misunderstood The Fearless Vampire Killers, but in the finished film it's nowhere to be found. The vulgarity here is hardly exuberant; it's thoroughly curdled. When a tacky, corpulent art smuggler shows up at the villa with Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa in tow, one gets a very slight but nonetheless palpable sense of the despair behind all of this film's failed "jokes." This treasure of Western Civ has no relevance in this film's world, except as a decoration for some rich perv's playpen, just as the Beethoven and Schubert piano pieces played by Nancy impress no one.
But none of this registers in a way that can lift the film out of its morass of maladroit cynical overstatement; What? is literally a chore to watch. Noting this, The Onion's Nathan Rabin pronounced just last week, "Only a hopeless square would look for meaning in Polanski’s leaden freak-fest." Well, sorry to disappoint you, daddy-o, but looking for "meaning," or whatever your preferred term is: that's what critics do. Sorry I'm not hip enough to roll with you, chief—or whatever you hipsters are calling each other these days. Rabin watched What? on a computer, from a bootleg DVD sent by a Facebook friend, because that's, I guess, how he "rolls." Myself, a square schmuck if ever there was one, I actually bought the new Severin DVD—a Region 2 PAL U.K. release. The transfer of the excellent source material ("a vault print reportedly stolen from the wine cellar of producer Carlo Ponti," the back cover cheekily states) is razor-sharp, and portions of the film are quite pretty. The extras are good too—aside from the interview with Rome, there are short interviews with co-cinematographer Marcello Gatti and composer Claudio Gizzi. An excellent presentation of a queasy-making film that is nonetheless an interesting curio of both one director's career and European sex cinema. Incidentally, the stalwart Glenn Erickson has a much more positive take on the picture here.