Monday, May 9, 2016

Retro Review: WHAT? (1972)

(Italy/France/West Germany - 1972; US releases 1973, 1976, 1979)

Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Gerard Brach and Roman Polanski. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Sydne Rome, Hugh Griffith, Romolo Valli, Roman Polanski, Guido Alberti, Roger Middleton, Cicely Browne, John Karlsen, Richard McNamara, Henning Schlueter, Gianfranco Piacentini, Elisabeth Witte. (Unrated, 114 mins)

Roman Polanski's most obscure film as a director was made between a pair of masterpieces: his brilliant 1971 adaptation of MACBETH, probably the best screen version of that particular Shakespeare play, and his 1974 classic CHINATOWN, one of the essential films of its decade. To say that Polanski lost his way in between those triumphs is an understatement. WHAT? is a semi-improvised and self-indulgent fiasco, trying to be an exercise in comedic erotica with bawdy and absurdist humor, but testing the patience of even the most devoted Polanskiphile. 21-year-old Sydne Rome, an Akron, OH native who's still active on Italian and German television and whose entire career has been spent in Europe, stars as Nancy, an American hitchhiking through Italy, narrowly escaping a gang rape (played for laughs, as one of the rapists, waiting his turn on Nancy, tries to have his way with one of the other guys) and hiding out at a posh, seaside villa inhabited by all manner of wealthy, high society perverts. After one night in the villa, Nancy's shirt disappears, thereby allowing Rome to spend much of the film topless, wearing only bellbottoms and a dinner napkin tied around her neck. Most of Nancy's time is spent with Alex (the legendary Marcello Mastroianni, in possibly the worst performance of his career), also known as "Coco the Mashed Potato," a syphilitic and possibly gay ex-pimp and sadomasochist prone to dressing in a tiger costume and asking Nancy to whip him before she finally gives into his open-sored charms. Nothing much happens other than Nancy walking around the villa in various states of undress and interacting with other guests, including Polanski as a creep named "Mosquito" talking about his "big stinger," and Romolo Valli as the lecherous Giovanni, who introduces himself to Nancy by going down on her while she's asleep. Eventually, Nancy meets their host, the villa's gravely-ill owner Noblart (Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith, who had just done another Eurosmut film with Pier Paolo Pasolini's THE CANTERBURY TALES), who begs her to bare her body to him before he dies.

Shot mostly at an Amalfi villa owned by producer Carlo Ponti, WHAT? must rank as the second worst thing Polanski's ever done in the home of a celebrity friend. It's one of those films where it's obvious that the actors are having a much better time than the audience, who can't help but get the feeling that the entire film is a long private joke that they're just not being let in on. Polanski and frequent screenwriting partner Gerard Brach seem to be going for a naughty, Bunuel-meets-Pasolini-like spin on Alice in Wonderland, sans Bunuel's mastery of the absurd and Pasolini's predilection for scatological loaf-pinching. After a set piece that finds Alex dressing as Napoleon, slapping Nancy around, and talking to a tree, the film finally, mercifully ends, with a half-assed, Buddy Bizarre breaking of the fourth wall as Nancy escapes from the would-be EXTERMINATING ANGEL bullshit at Noblart's villa and revealing to Alex that "We're in a movie!" as if the inhabitants of the house are trapped in a movie and only she can break free.

Viewers of WHAT? will know how they feel. WHAT? was greeted with respectful reactions from European audiences in 1972 but it took a year to get released by Embassy in the US, where it got an X rating. It also got such a toxic response from critics and audiences that it was quickly withdrawn and shelved after playing in NYC and Chicago. While Polanski went on to accolades with CHINATOWN, WHAT? languished, completely forgotten until it was picked up by the small United National Films in 1976, re-edited without Polanski's involvement from 114 minutes to 94, re-rated R, and retitled DIARY OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS, with a misleading ad campaign that called it "the kinkiest caper of the year" and of course, name-dropping ROSEMARY'S BABY and CHINATOWN. The DIARY version was later acquired by grindhouse outfit Motion Picture Marketing (a company co-owned by mobster Michael Franzese that found a niche in the '80s with vigilante scuzz like SAVAGE STREETS and Italian horror films like Lucio Fulci's THE GATES OF HELL and Bruno Mattei's NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES) and relaunched once more on the drive-in circuit in 1979 as the shortened FORBIDDEN DREAMS. MPM's poster art sported the tag line "The erotic fantasies of the world's most notorious director," taking queasy advantage of Polanski by then being a fugitive from US authorities for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. The 1976 re-edit would later be released on VHS in 1986 by Trans-World Entertainment under its DIARY OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS title, but until now, Polanski's original, 114-minute WHAT? has been almost impossible to see in the US since that aborted rollout in 1973. Severin Films released it on Blu-ray in the UK in 2008 and eight long--but not long enough--years later, they've just recently restored and released it for the US market. Other than the lovely Rome's many nude scenes, WHAT? is an unwatchable home movie, a justifiably buried footnote to a great filmmaker's career that will only appeal to the most fanatical Polanski completist, with only the most delusional apologist finding anything of value in it. That is, unless you've got "seeing Marcello Mastroianni's sagging ballsack" on your bucket list.

1976 re-edited version

1979 re-release of the 1976 version

1986 VHS release

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