NOTE: In our December 2010 poll, readers decided we too hasty to dismiss What?, and voted to make it a candidate for the List.
AKA Diary of Forbidden Dreams
DIRECTED BY: Roman Polanski
FEATURING: Sydne Rome, Marcello Mastroianni,
PLOT: An American hitchhiker in Italy loses her clothes and finds a Mediterranean villa full of oddball characters.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: What? is an absurdist sex comedy that’s highly absurd, mildly sexy, and not one bit comic. It’s weird, all right, but also slapdash and frequently insufferable; in short, not good enough to make a List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.
COMMENTS: Some films are ahead of their times, misunderstood on release, and are ripe for reappraisal years later. And sometimes, the critics get it right the first time, as when they ran screaming from early showings of What?. Sandwiched in between Roman Polanski’s intricately constructed classics Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), What? seems like the improvised work of an overconfident director who believes he can do no wrong. Polanski may be a genius, but light tone and full-out surrealism are a poor match to his talent for creating tension through subtly weird atmospheres. The overarching concept is great, the assembled talent is impeccable, the Mediterranean setting is sublimely elegant, Sydne Rome is a perfect specimen of femininity… yet the script sucks all the life and fun out of the movie, delivering one scene after another that lands with a dull thud. Heroine Rome, a hippie-esque ingenue, escapes a gang rape and flees to a villa inhabited by a cadre of eccentrics. Foremost among them is Marcello Mastroianni, uncomfortably playing a dirty old man and ex-pimp. Despite rumors of homosexuality and venereal diseases, Rome inexplicably falls for the lecher, and their trysts involve Mastroianni dressing in a tiger skin while she beats him or dressing like Napoleon while he beats her. It’s a novelty to see an actor of Mastroianni’s status willingly degrade himself this way, but it’s neither as fun or as funny as it sounds. Other poorly-sketched weirdos populating the mansion include a scuba diver (portrayed by Polanski) nicknamed Mosquito, a piano playing doctor, a dying patriarch who also turns out to be a dirty old man, a priest, and a naked woman wandering about the grounds. Absurd gags fall flat: in one of the earliest, a housemaid sprays shaving cream in the air in an attempt to kill a fly. Later, a workman will paint the back of Sydne’s appealing thigh blue, a rather uninteresting incident that the script insists on reminding us of over and over. The biggest running gag is that someone keeps stealing Sydne’s clothes, although the thief doesn’t pilfer quite enough of them; there are long stretches of the movie where Rome runs around clothed. Not coincidentally, the movie then starts to drag. A few clever ideas emerge, such as when certain scenes start to repeat themselves with slight variations, but in general the movie misses several golden opportunities to ratchet the absurdity up to truly entertaining levels. Particularly disappointing is the dialogue; the potential for clever nonsense interplay between the innocent American and the depraved Europeans devolves into crude, uninteresting jokes. A classical music score, references to Heraclitus, and paintings by Francis Bacon and Théodore Géricault in the background are deployed in an attempt to dress up the sleazy material in the clothes of high art. What? isn’t recommended, but it can be viewed, and even enjoyed, as a novelty. It’s unhinged, unpredictable, and full of that slightly naive and innocent late 1960s/early 1970s experimentalism that can be refreshing in this cynical age. But it’s clearly a product of its time, not a work that transcends it.
The film that What? most resembles is the star-studded (Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Ringo Starr) 1968 erotic misfire Candy, a doomed attempt to translate Terry Southern’s satirical porn novel to the screen. The concept of an erotic version of “Alice in Wonderland,” with a wide-eyed innocent encountering a cast of sexual deviants, has great promise, but has never been executed properly on screen. Alex de Renzy’s XXX feature Pretty Peaches (1978) is probably the movie that runs the farthest with that particular ball.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Polanski seems to be enjoying a weird, borderline-nonsensical joke at our expense, one without a punchline or a setup… a self-indulgent mess masquerading as a trippy free-for-all.”–Nathan Rabin, The Onion A.V. Club (DVD)