You can forgive Roman Polanski if he wanted to take things easy in 1972 and make a light-hearted, frivolous little movie. Less than two years removed from the grisly Manson family murders that took from the acclaimed filmmaker his wife and unborn child, Polanski first confronted his troubled demons with a suitably grim adaptation of Macbeth (1971). After that, apparently ready for solace of a livelier variety, he and a motley crew of friends and associates set sail for Carlo Ponti’s extravagant Italian villa. There they made the peculiarly disappointing What?, a raucous sex comedy without much sex and with very little comedy.
What? begins as globe-trotting Nancy (Sydne Rome) has hitched a ride with some Italian natives. As she speaks of her touristic adventures, the men in the car are more focused on her palpable sexuality. A rather bumbling attempted rape ensues (uneasy watching for many post-1977 Polanski audiences) and Nancy emerges safe but with shirt sufficiently and strategically torn. She seeks shelter at a nearby residence, which houses an aimless assortment of odd inhabitants, including the sleazy Alex (Marcello Mastroianni, like you never want to see him again), and Polanski himself as Mosquito, one of several leering, pervy men who come and go at random (one character likens the villa to a railway station).
The gathered assembly participate in a number of unfettered activities, sometimes together, sometimes alone. As more people are introduced and the potential for new storylines emerge—though seldom coalesce—the characters adopt a carefree go-along acceptance tinged with animosity. Some act as if they are in on a scheme together, while others appear to adopt a certain character or character type (Alex literally does this, donning costumes and playing various parts). Other than the mystery of why these individuals act the way they do and to what aim, there isn’t a whole lot to keep What? moving at a persistent, interesting pace. With so much going on, nothing really happens.
Basically, What? is a loose hodge-podge of fitful antics. When Mosquito goes missing, some of the others check for him under the ping-pong table and in his hammock. When he still isn’t found, one resident declares the disappearance to be very strange; meanwhile, we’re left to wonder, exactly by what standard is something strange in this wonderland? Seeing Mastroianni on all fours, donning a tiger skin and growling as Rome feebly strikes him with a whip, one is simply at a loss for words.
What?’s saving grace is undeniably its setting. As a showcase for Ponti’s stunning Mediterranean villa, the film rivals anything on the Travel Channel. This isn’t at all surprising given Polanski’s knack for creating potent atmosphere and utilizing setting as a vital character itself. Yet even this is somewhat ruined by the crudity of the occupants. Though it is a dwelling designed from obvious wealth and ostentatious style, the reckless residents trash the place like hedonistic rock stars.
In an interview on the newly released Severin Blu-ray of the film, Rome likens her character in What? to a combination of Little Annie Fanny (from the Playboy comic series) and a school teacher. She even more perceptively compares the film to an erotic comic strip or dream, one where you don’t really see anything explicit and everything has a fanciful air. She makes a point, but it is hard to argue that there is much even remotely erotic or fantastic about What?. And either quality would have put the film on par with similar movies, which can be enjoyable in their blatantly teasing, whimsical bawdiness. While her additional comments make What? sound like it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch, she is somewhat naïve when she says nothing about the film has dated. It may not look old fashioned, as she rightly argues, but it is certainly a film of its era.
What? was a success in Italy, less so throughout the rest of Europe, and was a bomb in the United States. It failed to even garner much interest when it was re-cut, re-titled (Roman Polanski’s Diary of Forbidden Dreams), and re-released in an exploitative attempt to cash in on Polanski’s rape case. This goofy romp may have better production values and a better director than most of its kind, but there is little to distinguish it as something exceptional. If one tries hard enough, one could perhaps find Polanski parallels in the film’s initial situation of a stranger in a strange land (The Tenant, 1976) where a foreign language creates communication barriers (Frantic, 1988). Or, one could make the case that this singular setting serves the purpose of intimidating confinement (Repulsion, 1965, and Rosemary’s Baby, 1968). But really, What? is simply not the type of film one expects from a director as talented as Roman Polanski. At best, it is for a curious few or a devoted Polanski completist (the only reason I’ve now seen it twice).