Filmmakers usually send location scouts to look for places to film a pre-existing script. Independent film icon Roger Corman has long advocated doing just the opposite, urging young filmmakers to find a striking location—say, an empty mine or a dramatic old mansion—and write a script around it. It’s a practice that led to such Corman classics as The Abandoned Train Station By The Lake With The Guy In The Monster Mask and The Vacant Castle We Paid Boris Karloff To Wander Around For Several Days.
Roman Polanski followed that directive with 1972’s What? (a.k.a. Che?, a.k.a. Diary Of Forbidden Dreams), a half-forgotten disaster he made using the lovely Italian villa of producer Carlo Ponti as his primary set. Then again, Polanski didn’t write a screenplay around his set so much as he scribbled on a cocktail napkin “Clothing-averse American fox with a halo of golden curls enters freaky home. Crazy sexy cool shit ensues,” then let fate take its course.
A Facebook friend known only to me as Beowulf Jones pointed me in the direction of this oddity, then sent a bootleg DVD, along with a stern warning that s/he in no way, shape, or form condoned, approved, or sanctioned the film; s/he just thought it would make for a good Case File. (Incidentally, if you want me to cover a film in this column, I recommend sending a DVD or videotape of the film in question to me at The A.V. Club’s Chicago office. I’m talking to you, commenter who wants me to write about The Public Eye.)
It didn’t take long to figure out why Beowulf Jones might take pains to distance him or herself from Polanski’s spacy labor of love. What? begins, queasily enough, with heroine Sydne Rome fleeing an attempted gang rape by a trio of Italian grotesques. Rome fights them off and finds shelter inside a palatial estate, where she encounters strange figures who barely seem to notice the half-naked, English-speaking stranger in their midst. But she’s hardly done with attempted sexual assaults; the dog at the villa attempts to mount Rome by way of introduction. And a melancholy English gent decides to perform cunnilingus on her as she sleeps in a hand-shaped chair.
Rome plays a moon-eyed innocent, equal parts Alice In Wonderland and the curiously innocent sexual adventurer of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy. Her sexuality is pure and uncomplicated; it’s this sick, sad world that’s hopelessly corrupt. Rome dippily inhabits something of a countercultural type: the sexy naïf who retains her fundamental innocence no matter how much debauchery she witnesses/enjoys.
It isn’t until Marcello Mastroianni shows up in black shades and a white bathrobe—the picture of super-suave Euro decadence, with his pencil mustache and aura of world-weary exhaustion—that What? begins to feel like a real movie instead of a talented director’s random cinematic scribblings. Almost. If What? were the student film it often suggests, Polanski’s professors would have encouraged him to find another line of work.
In a performance savagely spoofing his libertine persona, Mastroianni plays a newly retired pimp rumored to be gay and riddled with syphilis. He’s the film’s Mad Hatter, a sad-eyed lunatic who invites Rome to his room, shows off a tiger-skin rug acquired in Africa, disrobes, pretends to be a tiger, and sexually violates her.
According to Roger Ebert’s adroit half-star review, What?’s title came from Ponti’s enraged response to being shown the film for the first time. It’s easy to see where Ponti was coming from. “What?” is the only sane reaction to Polanski’s film. It’s the rare title that doubles as a review. Ebert goes on to note that in spite of Mastroianni, Polanski’s presence as director and actor, and gratuitous nudity of considerable quantity and quality, it took years for the film to find a distributor in the United States. A big drawback: distributors’ maddening insistence on actually seeing the film before agreeing to release it.
Even in the Wild West world of ’70s cinema, What? is profoundly fucked-up. Polanski pops up in his free-associative bacchanal as an irritable young man known only as “Mosquito.” Why Mosquito? “They call me Mosquito because I sting with my big stinger,” Polanski helpfully says. Then he shows off the stinger in question—a harpoon. “I am not a boob man like those Americans. It’s usually ass that turns me on,” he continues. Suddenly it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see Polanski solely as an artist, and not as a man currently in jail for having drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old. There is some creepy juju at work here.
It’s through-the-looking-glass time as our oversexed Alice falls deeper and deeper into a realm devoid of any governing principle beyond dream logic and lust. While Rome scribbles in her diary, an ugly-American tourist couple colonizes her room without explanation or justification, leaving her to sleep on the beach until Polanski purloins her trousers.
Late in the film, Rome sits down for a sun-baked twist on Alice In Wonderland’s tea party. Rome looks on obliviously while various supporting players begin giggling uncontrollably, lost in some private joke she can’t begin to fathom, let alone share. That’s the film in a nutshell; Polanski seems to be enjoying a weird, borderline-nonsensical joke at our expense, one without a punchline or a setup.
After the tea party, Mastroianni and Rome dig up a treasure chest containing a Napoleon costume. Mastroianni demands Rome’s passport in a Pepe Le Pew accent, angrily slaps her for no discernible reason, and begins addressing a nearby tree as his commanding officer. Then the whipping and handcuffing ensues, and viewers begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this Polanski fellow has some issues when it comes to women.
This makes no more or less sense than anything else in the film; random shit just happens. Only a hopeless square would look for meaning in Polanski’s leaden freak-fest. As in Candy, the humor, such as it is, stems from the surreal incongruity between the protagonist’s guileless innocence and unshakable belief in the innate goodness of humanity, and the amorality, perversity, and sexual rapaciousness of everyone she encounters.
With What?, Polanski seems to have forgotten everything he knew about filmmaking. Lazily improvised scenes linger on endlessly, with little regard for pacing, shape, or rhythm. What? is a self-indulgent mess masquerading as a trippy free-for-all. It’s a dream, all right, and like most dreams, it’s of interest only to the dreamer. This is Polanski’s long, strange, kinky, insufferable trip all the way. What? isn’t just a cinephile endurance test; it’s a waste of a beautiful villa and a naked woman.
What does it all mean? What’s going on? Who are these people? How did a filmmaker this talented make a film this bad? How could he have had such supreme faith in his muddled vision? Why am I watching a bootleg dub of What? on my laptop at 1 a.m.? Why does Rome end the film blathering to Mastroianni about them both being characters in a movie, as she flees the villa and its enraged inhabitants? Why? Forget it, Jake. It’s What?
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco