A snarkier person than I could repurpose the title of this film as the entire content of the review, since watching this obscure Roman Polanski comedy is a befuddling experience. First comes the matter of the film’s obscurity. Any time I mention this picture to a fellow cinefile, they’re surprised not only that Polanski made a feature between Macbeth (1971) and Chinatown (1974), but that the feature has all but disappeared from public view. Never released on home video in the U.S., the film is mostly available via bootleg copies. Next comes the matter of the movie itself. Although Polanski had made comedies previously, including The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), this isn’t some brisk cavalcade of jokes. Instead, What? is an epic-length surrealistic sex farce that was rated X during its first American release. (Nothing pornographic happens, but every scene is infused with carnality and/or nudity.) And finally there’s the matter of what this film says about Polanski’s muse.
Much ink has been spilled theorizing that the gore and violence of Polanski’s Macbeth was an indirect response to the murder of the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by members of the Manson family. Similarly, one could draw troubling connections between What?, during which men take sexual liberties with an innocent young woman, and Polanski’s subsequent problems stemming from a sexual encounter with an underage girl. If Macbeth tells us something about the filmmaker’s anguish, does What? tell us something about the way he found release while processing grief? On a less worrisome level, it’s also possible to read What? as an homage to Tate, whose screen persona would have suited the film’s leading role of an amiably ditzy sexpot. In any event, What? is too strange to take seriously, and yet it’s not quite strange enough to qualify as some quintessentially ’70s head trip. The vibe is pure debauchery.
Shot on the grounds of a beachside villa owned by the film’s producer, Carlo Ponti, the semi-improvised film begins with American tourist Nancy (Sydne Rome) catching a ride from a group of swarthy locals in a car. They try to rape her, but she escapes and leaps onto an elevator lift that takes her to the villa. There, she spends several days with a group of sex-crazed weirdos, including ex-pimp Alex (Marcello Mastraoianni). Nancy ends up naked frequently, so much of the film’s dialogue concerns evaluations of her breasts and inquires into her sexual availability. Polanski plays a supporting role as an oddball named Mosquito, who brags about his “big stinger.” (He’s ostensibly referring to a spear gun, but you get the idea.) Like a dumb victim in some bad horror movie, Nancy remains at the villa even though everyone there is insane, and she falls into a twisted sexual relationship with Alex. In one scene, he wears only the skin of a tiger he killed on a hunting trip, then crawls on all fours while Nancy whips him until he’s sufficiently aroused for a tryst. This stuff goes on forever, since the version of What? that I watched was two and a half hours long, even though most sources list the running time as 110 minutes (presumably the length of some edit for the American market).
What? is pointless and prurient, but the really confounding thing about the picture is that it’s made as well as any other peak-period Polanski film. The camerawork is smooth, the editing is graceful, and some of the dialogue as droll. After Alex complains about “the evil pestilence of this house,” Nancy replies, in her breathy Marilyn Monroe voice, “You’re right—it does have a funny smell!” While many other ’70s movies venture further into the bizarre than What?, few represent such a peculiar chapter in the story of an internationally revered filmmaker at the height of his creative power.