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In Praise of Roman Polanski's "What?"

by Eric Kohn
July 11, 2011 2:52 AM
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Roman Polanski's "What?" is a pleasurably offbeat sex romp that deserves greater recognition among fans of his work. Made in 1972 (but released in the U.S., just barely, with an X rating in 1973; see a review here), the movie preceded "Chinatown," Polanski's universally acclaimed masterpiece, and a far more palatable expression of the director's talents than this twisted satire of free love and American innocence.

Sydne Roman stars, in various stages of undress, as a young woman traveling Italy and lured into a mysterious commune with its own internal logic. Polanski announces his ribald intentions from the very first scene, when Roman hitches a ride with a couple of horny Italian guys who promptly try to rape her--or, rather, one guy tries to rape her, while the other guy pulls down his pants and tries to penetrate his pal. He panics and she runs, marking the first of several times when "What?" beckons you to speak its title.

Although said to take its basis from "Alice in Wonderland," the preceding narrative plays like Pasolini's "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom" if it were transformed into a screwball comedy. Sight gags and general absurdity ensue, but "What?" is often not overtly funny as much as fascinatingly inscrutable. A great Marcello Mastroianni, playing a former pimp, beckons Roman into his bedroom and seduces her with a tiger suit. A Mozart duet is played twice along with a repetition of certain lines of dialogue, in an acknowledged bit of déjà vu. In a moment both tender and ludicrous, the wide-eyed elder of the house (Hugh Griffith) convinces Roman to spread her legs for him on his death bed. All the while, Roman maintains a blankly cheerful stare, an amusing caricature of the hippy vacuity that Polanski exploits to its fullest extent. (Mastroianni said it best in himself in "La Dolce Vita," when he described Anita Ekburg's character as "the American kind [of woman]…a big doll."

Polanski had already proven the comic potential of his skill with "The Fearless Vampire Killers," but "What?" displays a more anarchic capacity that calls to mind Buñuel. However, it's hardly a deviation from Polanski's other work from this period. The unhinged male libido connects it to "Repulsion," just as the presence of unknown forces draws from "Rosemary's Baby." Viewed from today's perspective, it's also an awkward evocation of Polanski's personal kinks, as he plays a character named Mosquito who openly professes his love for anal sex. (The world would learn about that real life parallel about five years later.)

Released in the U.K. by Severin Films, "What?" remains unavailable on DVD in the United States because nobody seems to know who owns the rights to it. However, it received a welcome screening last Friday at the reRun Gastropub in Dumbo, kicking off the theater's retrospective series celebrating the genre label's five-year-anniversary. It continues throughout this week, most notably with a Tuesday double-bill that includes Ted Post's "The Baby," another wild treatment of primal urges, this one featuring a grown man crawling around and babbling like an infant. Not as great as "What?" I guess--but just as likely to make you say that word.

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