Written by: Christopher O’Neill on November 4th, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: Italy, 1973
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Roman Polanski and Gerard Brach
Cast: Sydne Rome, Marcello Mastroianni, Hugh Griffith, Roman Polanski, Romolo Valli
DVD released: November 3rd, 2008
Approximate running time: 109 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
DVD Release: Severin UK
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £14.99
Synopsis: Following an attempted assault by three inept thugs, American tourist Nancy flees her attackers via an elevator-birdcage that takes her to the luscious Villa Noblart. Once here, the wide-eyed innocent encounters of variety of eccentric oddballs whose insistence on stealing her clothing leaves the resourceful heroine to fashion makeshift alternatives. Among the villa’s inhabitants are a lecherous unstable ex-pimp who likes to dress up as a lion and be tamed with a whip, a short harpoon-wielding suitor called “Mosquito”, a clueless middle-aged American couple with a fondness for walkie-talkies, and the dying patriarch of the estate whose final wish is for the young woman to expose herself to him. If these characters were not strange enough, Nancy begins to notice that several of them are reprising the same actions each day, suggesting that the whole event could actually just be a dream.
WHAT? is Roman Polanski’s least-known feature film which is unfortunate but hardly surprising since on face value it can be perceived as a slight throwaway picture sandwiched between more significant work in his filmography. Between his blood-soaked adaptation of MACBETH and the resounding international success of CHINATOWN, the Polish director created what many critics and admirers have dismissed as what is ‘merely’ a light, breezy Euro-sex comedy which in turn performed poorly at the box office, was crudely re-cut and retitled for its American release, and has often been relegated to little more than a footnote in several books devoted to his work. Seen in its full-length version as intended by the director, WHAT? is as important and as accomplished as any other Polanski picture as it is layered with his usual intelligence and unique style which makes it essential viewing for any enthusiast of his work.
Throughout Polanski’s work he has displayed a peculiar sense of humor that can often be both understated and baffling yet in small measures passes acceptably throughout even his most mainstream pictures. When he has attempted films that contain more overt comedic elements – CUL-DE-SAC, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and PIRATES – they are still wrapped up within another, more acceptable genre. Therefore, it is most intriguing that WHAT? is the director’s only film that can be labeled as purely a comedy, which in turn can be outlandish, coarse, pretentious, bizarre and anachronistic which ultimately makes it unique to Polanski’s sensibilities. Perhaps inevitably, such self-indulgence can be heavy-going for an admirer of his work, let alone the casual viewer, and can be exhausting at almost two hours yet is so unpredictable that any adventurous viewer cannot be anything but fascinated – if films such as REPULSION and THE TENANT are shadowy nightmares, than WHAT? is a feverish wet dream which leaves one roused but totally bewildered.
The character of Nancy was inspired by Playboy magazine’s Little Annie Fanny comic strip who is brought to life on-screen due to the wonderful performance by Sydne Rome. Having made small appearances in a handful of Italian films since the late sixties, WHAT? marked Rome’s first significant role and she is perfectly cast as the curly-haired and blue-eyed American innocent. Marcello Mastroianni is as always exceptionally brilliant as the kinky ex-pimp Alex whose sweaty, unhinged portrayal is a perfect embodiment of Polanski’s most absurdest comedy. The director himself appears uncredited as Mosquito, the odd little mustachioed chap who is determined to keep Nancy away from Alex (“They call me Mosquito because I sting with my big stinger…You probably think it’s something sexual”) while Hugh Griffith and Romolo Valli lend equally solid support.
The widescreen transfer of Severin’s DVD preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio at 2:35:1 which is essential for appreciating Polanski’s use of the cinemascope format, particularly since some scenes are played out in one take and usually framing two actors in the same shot. Seemingly taken from the negative, the image quality is almost flawless with a sharp image, little grain and vibrant colors. There are some mild examples of occasional vertical scratches but these are very thin and hardly even noticeable. Both the film’s opening credits (there are no closing credits, not even an “the end” title card) and various instances of text (close-ups of Nancy’s diary, in particular) are in Italian. The latter is never a problem, as the information illustrated is generally accompanied by a voiceover from the film’s heroine but it is worth noting out that Polanski shot these inserts in a variety of languages (Italian, English, German and possibly more) so English would have been preferable, but is not unessential.
The English language soundtrack is presented at Dolby Digital Mono English which is clean and free of hiss or damage. While it would have been an added bonus for the Italian language track to have been included (as found on the Italian DVD from General Video, which also contained the English track), the English audio is best suited since this was the language spoken during the shooting of the film.
In the extras department most welcome are three featurettes with key people responsible for the success of WHAT? ‘Sydne In Wonderland’ is a 16-minute English language interview with the film’s star in which she discusses getting the role, working with Polanski and also Mastroianni (whom she describes as “darling”) and how the film was poorly-received in America which makes for an informative and entertaining viewing. ‘Memories Of A Young Pianist’ is a 22-minute interview with composer Claudio Gizzi in which he discusses his involvement with WHAT? as well as Paul Morrissey’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA (a clip of Polanski’s cameo in the latter film is included in this segment). “A Surreal Pop Movie” is a 16-minute interview with director of photography Marcello Gatti which is another welcome addition to the disc (both Gizzi and Gatti’s interviews are in Italian with forced English subtitles). Rounding off the extras is the Italian theatrical trailer which compresses the film’s narrative into two-minutes.