Roman Polanski's most obscure theatrical feature WHAT? comes to Blu-ray from Severin Films.
Young Nancy (Sydne Rome, SOME GIRLS DO) is a naïve yet seasoned world traveler who has managed to avoid rape until she hitchhikes with a trio of Italians along the Amalfi coast. She manages to escape violation (while gradually losing her clothes) by hopping aboard an elevator that takes her down the cliffs to a labyrinthine seaside villa (home of producer Carlo Ponti) festooned with pop art and Francis Bacon paintings that might be either a clinic or a resort. No sooner does she meet syphilitic pimp Alexander (Marcello Mastroianni, LA GRANDE BOUFFE) on the breakfast terrace than he is making an appointment to defile her despite the warnings of fellow guests Tony (Gianfranco Piacentini) and Jimmy (Roger Middleton) – whose own pastimes include ping-pong and sodomy – and the director himself cameoing as Mosquito, so nicknamed because he stings things with his big stinger ("You probably think it's something sexual"). Most of the guests ignore her or do not appear to perceive her at all, but a priest (Guido Alberti, 8 1/2) warns her to leave or be corrupted by decadence and decay, a pianist (Romolo Valli, DEATH IN VENICE) accuses her of being an intruder, and host Mr. Noblart (Hugh Griffith, THE CANTERBURY TALES) wants her to do something very special for him (even if it might break the spell of the villa with a "little death").
A French-Italian co-production between Andrew Braunsberg (THE TENANT) and Carlo Ponti (BLOW-UP) – a partnership that would later net the Paul Morrissey duo BLOOD FOR DRACULA and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (the former with a cameo by Polanski) – WHAT? is a seeming series of non sequiturs that does not really gel until the film's structure is revealed almost an hour into the running time. Scripted by Polanski and regular collaborator Gerard Brach (REPULSION), the setting of WHAT? echoes Marienbad, Malpertuis, and even the damned house of LISA AND THE DEVIL in its collection of characters cycling actions and dialogue in a timeless vacuum, but also seems to be a lighter exploration of themes and situations from Polanski's earlier and subsequent works (particularly CUL-DE-SAC and his earlier comic shorts), with the residents seemingly more benign variations on the tenants of ROSEMARY'S BABY and, of course, THE TENANT (although it is never certain whether our heroine is supposed to remain an outsider or slated to take on a role among the guests). It can be a bit trying at first, particularly as out Alice through the looking glass is a little too far left of incredulity to the oddities early on, and most of the comedy falls flat (including Mastroianni donning a tiger fur to be whipped), but there are moments of cinematographic beauty and some engaging bits of acting from Rome, Polanski, Mastroianni, and particularly Visconti regular Valli. WHAT? is not an underrated classic, but it is an interesting "vacation" in between his more stripped-down earlier works and his more mainstream and sometimes more baroque (visually or thematically) productions to follow.
Originally released by Avco Embassy with an X-rating in 1973, the film was reissued in 1976 cut for an R-rating by United National as FORBIDDEN DREAMS followed by a Motion Picutre Marketing reissue of the same cut in 1979 and later on VHS by Trans World Entertainment (thanks to Chris Poggiali for this information). Although Severin released the film on DVD in the UK in 2008, WHAT? is making its stateside digital debut on Blu-ray with an attractive 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen transfer of this Todd-AO 35 scope film that can look flat (or at least recessed) in some of the darker and blue-tinted night scenes but conveys a better sense of depth in brighter shots following Nancy through the villa's corridors or across the width of the exteriors. Audio options include a clean LPCM 2.0 English track and a slightly inferior Italian dub (also LPCM 2.0) but no English subtitles for the Italian or to help with some of Mastroianni's thickly-accented dialogue. Everyone appears to be speaking English, so the dubbing of some of the supporting performers is less distracting.
The extras reproduce the contents of Severin's UK DVD edition. In "Sydne in Wonderland" (16:43), Rome recalls Polanski's exhaustive search for the film's lead and how FIRST BLOOD director George P. Cosmatos kept her name in the running in Ponti's office. She speaks warmly of Polanski and Mastroianni but also of her initial reticence to do nudity. As expected, she received many offers for films requiring nudity in the aftermath of the film's release but also ponders whether she would have had a career without WHAT? In "Memories of a Young Pianist" (21:47) composer Claudio Gizzi (FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN), who arranged the classical music here including works by Mozart and Schubert (among them "Death and the Maiden" which would later be featured in Polanski's like-titled film adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's stage play). Opening with Gizzi's piano performance of his BLOOD FOR DRACULA theme, it focuses on his work with Visconti (LUDWIG) and the two Morrissey/Warhol films more so than the film in question. "A Surreal Pop Movie" (16:02) interviewing cinematographer Marcello Gatti (THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS) – who is co-credited with Giuseppe Ruzzolini (SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS) on the photography – actually does focus on the film more so than his other loftier credits for Gio Pontecorvo or his later exploitation credits. The film's theatrical trailer (1:55) is also included. (Eric Cotenas)
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