What? might almost be called The Missing Roman Polanski Film. It was made between Macbeth (1971) and Chinatown (1974) and was scarcely released in the U.S., though it received a spotty release in the late ‘70s in an attempt to cash in on the notoriety of Polanski fleeing the country. At that time it was recut and retitled Diary of Forbidden Dreams and marketed as “the erotic fantasies of the world’s most notorious filmmaker.” Although the film could be classed as a sex comedy and is a very sexual film, I find it hard to believe that What? represents Polanski’s erotic fantasies—or those of anyone else. All the sex in the film (and there’s a good bit of it) is either playful or downright silly, and any eroticism is simply from the film’s plentiful nudity. Of course, if the idea of Marcello Mastroianni in a moth-eaten tiger skin (apparently from a geographically-challenged animal he claims to have shot in Africa) being whipped by Sydney Rome—or Mastroianni in an Italian police uniform spanking a handcuffed Ms. Rome with a switch—turns you on, then that’s another matter. That does, however, give some slight idea of this exceedingly strange and oddly fragile absurdist reworking of Alice in Wonderland.
Naïve American tourist Nancy (Rome) finds that some macho Italian lads who have given her a ride have something more on their minds—and to prove it, they attempt to rape her. (That they also try to rape each other in the process is a nice subtextual touch.) Fleeing them, she ends up in a weird elevator that takes her to a villa perched on the cliff above the Mediterranean (in reality, the villa belonged to producer Carlo Ponti), where her arrival—even in a shredded T-shirt—is accepted at face value by a gardener and a housekeeper. The housekeeper installs Nancy in a guest room, all the while spraying for insects with shaving cream and at one point mistaking a remark Nancy makes about Francis Bacon as a request for breakfast. Soon Nancy is immersed in the strange world of the villa and its inhabitants, who range from a retired pimp (who may or may not have VD) named Alex (Mastroianni), a hotheaded hanger-on named Mosquito (Polanski), an arthritic pianist named Giovanni (Romolo Valli), a dying patriarch (Hugh Griffith) with a Nietszche-reading German nurse, and a variety of quirky sorts who drift through the villa.
It’s a peculiar—and libido-drenched—world of its own in which our American innocent is subjected to various indignities, embarrassments and possibly even delights. Time keeps repeating on itself with dialogue and events recurring. The whole thing is as delicate and insubstantial as the pink rose petals that fall when Nancy and Giovanni duet on Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major for Four Hands—and just as appealing. The usual Polanski trappings are all there, but with scarcely a trace of the traditional sinister undercurrents. What? is easily Polanski’s lightest film, but with style to spare—it’s probably his best looking film—and merits of its own. It’s a unique and essential Polanski film that ought to be better known than it is.