Between 1968-1976, director Roman Polanski served up a remarkable series of cinematic classics: Rosemary's Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown and The Tenant. By my count, that's one of the greatest horror films ever made, a sensational Shakespeare adaptation, one of the greatest detective movies ever made and a groundbreaking psychological thriller. However, the list is incomplete: right in the middle of that run is Polanski's 1972 hallucinatory sex comedy What?, which is easily the most obscure movie of the director's career. There's a good reason that the film has rarely been seen since its initial theatrical run: it's awful.
What is What? I suppose you could say it's Polanski's X-rated, Fellini-esque riff on Alice in Wonderland. It begins with a young American woman named Nancy (Sydne Rome, The Twist) who is traveling across Europe. After narrowly escaping an attempted gang rape (played for laughs – oh, boy), she jumps onto an elevator and stumbles into a lavish Italian villa. There, she meets a host of eccentric characters: a syphilitic pimp (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita), a grubby harpoon enthusiast (Polanski himself), the villa's sleazy, ailing owner (Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur), a perverted priest (Guido Alberti, 8 ½) and lots of other perpetually horny men (there are a few women present, but they aren't given anything to do). Also, Nancy keeps losing her clothes, forcing her to spend much of the film running around in next-to-nothing.
The notion of Alice in Wonderland as a demented sex fantasy is one that has been beaten to death by various artists, but I've never seen an Alice riff as lazy and uninspired as the one Polanski serves up. I found Louis Malle's Black Moon – another '70s flick that filters Lewis Carroll's iconic imagery through a lens of sexual awakening – thoroughly unrewarding, but at least Malle seemed to be going for something specific. Polanski seems to be making everything up as he goes along, and despite making constant visual references to Alice in Wonderland, his take on the story largely seems to be, “a bunch of random stuff happens to a dumb girl.”
Polanski has occasionally been accused of misogyny, but none of his other work even begins to approach the misogyny of What? In an interview included on the new Blu-ray release of the film, star Sydne Rome reveals that one of Polanski's main inspirations for the role of Nancy was Little Annie Fanny, a Playboy comic strip character whose only noteworthy characteristic is a tendency to lose her clothes at unfortunate moments. Indeed, Nancy is an underwritten, absurdly inconsistent character who only exists to help fulfill the sexual whims of the villa's assorted denizens. The film has a lot of laughs at her expense, and you can almost see Polanski sneering every time she's placed in yet another sexually humiliating situation (probably because you can actually see him sneering from time to time).
To be sure, the other characters aren't given a whole lot more definition. They just turn up and do goofy things, usually involving some sort of sexually-charged nonsense. Griffith begs to take a look at Nancy's breasts. Mastroanni dresses up in a tiger suit and begs to be whipped (and later dresses up in a Napoleon costume and does the whipping himself). Polanski rambles on about the fact that he is an, “ass man” (nope, not even gonna go there). On and on it goes, and in each instance, Polanski's usual tight craftsmanship is nowhere to be found. Seemingly-improvised scenes stagger on for an eternity, the jokes lack any sense of timing or rhythm, the actors struggle to stay in character and poor editing choices are made all over the place. There's no sense of momentum, no larger point to be made, no journey to go on: it's just witless nonsense. In a lazy attempt at persuading the audience to forgive this, it offers an ending that breaks the fourth wall in the dumbest manner imaginable.
There are a number of possible explanations for the film's sloppiness. Polanski and his crew were reportedly exhausted after making Macbeth, and wanted to do something fun for a change. Producer Carlo Ponti give Polanski access to his villa and license to make any sort of film he wanted. Reportedly, everyone involved had a good time, and the film certainly feels like the product of filmmakers more interested in having a good time than in making an actual movie. Still, Polanski was convinced that he was making something special, and even claimed that What? was his greatest work. However, Ponti found the film completely baffling (the title was reportedly inspired by his initial reaction to the movie), and dramatically re-cut the whole thing making heavy use of Polanski's outtakes. Maybe the original version was even less comprehensible, but I like to imagine that it feels like a movie someone actually directed. Seeing Polanski's name attached to this rubbish feels a bit like seeing Picasso's name at the bottom of a crude drawing on the wall of a public restroom.
MPAA Rating: X
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Year: 1972