What? could lay claim to be the forgotten film in Roman Polanski’s extensive cinematic cv. Situated between the Sharon Tate-infected horrors of Macbeth and his most highly regarded work Chinatown, it has never received the reappraisals granted other “minor” works such as The Tenant or Bitter Moon. For this reason alone Severin’s new Region 2 disc becomes highly desirable to Polanski completist; after all, pretty much everything else he directed – including a number of the early shorts – have become available on DVD over the past decade. Yet whilst the disc itself has been superbly produced (fine presentation, contextualising extras), the film itself perhaps deserves its meagre reputation. As with Polanski’s famous flop Pirates, the interest derives not so much from what appears onscreen, but rather the intrigue generated in seeing the director trying his hand at something outside the Polanski norm.
And so we should begin by stating that What? was Polanski’s Italian sex comedy. The presence of a slightly buffoonish Marcello Mastroianni signals as much, as does the fact that lead actress Sydne Rome spends much of the movie in various states of undress. Yet this is no cheap and cheery quickie designed to earn the director a quick buck: its soundtrack collates Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; it was shot in super-wide Todd AO; Francis Bacon is among the artists whose work adorns the sets; and it was written by Polanski with his regular collaborator Gerard Brach – a partnership that began on Repulsion and continued until the latter's death. More importantly the pair have dreamt up a narrative that pays little conventional heed to the bedroom farce. Essentially plotless, it begins with Rome entering a villa following an attempted gang rape and ends with a tongue-in-cheek post-modernist pay-off. In between there’s an odd set of vignettes as Rome meets the various occupants of this villa by the ocean, each one as mysterious as the next and with a backstory that neither she nor the audience can quite pin down. Needless to say, nods to Alice in Wonderland are perhaps unsurprising.
With that said, however, Polanski’s own work figured far larger in my mind than that of Lewis Carroll. The single setting has featured in his films since Knife in the Water and takes in a diverse range from Rosemary’s Baby to Death and the Maiden. Similarly the mystified central character of Rome harks back to Repulsion and looks forward to The Tenant. Yet note how all of these works fall to the side of psycho-drama as opposed to the lightweight and you’re on track to discovering why What? never really satisfies. As with The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires) it’s clear that comedy isn't really Polanski’s forte. But were to tilt either film slightly - Fearless into more unabashed Hammer territory; What? into similar waters as Cul-de-Sac, say – and you’d have arguably superior works. The Fearless Vampire Killers remains memorable primarily because of its superb Komeda score and the lush cinematography of Douglas Slocombe; at the time of writing I can recall one, maybe two, or its gags. In the case of What?, however, I find myself wondering as to the impact of a number of scenes – that odd moment in which an aerosol of shaving foam is treated as an air freshener; Rome awakening to discover that she is unwillingly receiving oral sex – had they been played for their more obvious unease. After all, the incessant voyeurism and hints of misanthropic games both give the film the flavour of Polanski’s more widely-seen and widely-acclaimed efforts. And so we’re left with, essentially, a variation on some familiar themes, the kind that will prove an intriguing diversion to hardened Polanski watchers, but of little interest to anyone else.
The first release from Severin Films, in DVD terms What? proves to be a very pleasing debut. The film retains its ’scope ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and is sourced from an excellent print. The colours are crisp, the image sharp and signs of age and damage at an absolute minimum. Slight edge-enhancement is apparent and the opening scene – perhaps because of its under-lit nature – demonstrates some overt artefacting, but these are minor flaws in what is, overall, a very fine presentation. The soundtrack, here present in its original English mono, is similarly without problems. If there are any problems to be had then it would appear that these are inherent in the original production, as opposed to anything the disc itself delivers. Unfortunately, however, English subtitles are not available.
The extras consist of three interviews and the original theatrical trailer (which retains the ’scope ratio but is presented without anamorphic enhancement). All three of the interviews have been produced by Severin especially for this disc, the first of which chats to Sydne Rome for 16 minutes. Sticking primarily to Polanski and his exactness as a director of actors, she does find time to detail how she gained the part (thanks, in part, to her being friends with the director George Pan Cosmatos) and how her role was apparently modelled on a combination between the Playboy comic strip Little Fanny Anny and an old schoolteacher. The second interview spends 22 minutes in the company of composer of Claudio Gizzi. Given the running time it’s hardly surprising to discover that it is not just Polanski and What? which comes under scrutiny but also his collaborations with Visconti and Paul Morrissey on Blood of Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein, not to mention his later career in the pop world and working for EMI. Finally, we also have a 16-minute piece with cinematographer Marcello Gatti. As with the Rome interview it is mainly Polanski who provides the focus, though we do get the odd anecdote about living above Alida Valli and his schooldays with Marcello Mastroianni. In all three cases, though, it should be noted that much of what they say proves highly interesting – and it’s undoubtedly welcome to see a minor title such as What? earning this kind of discussion when it would have been so easy simply to dump it on disc with just a trailer as back-up. (Note that the interviews with Gizzi and Gatti are conducted in Italian and come with optional English subtitling; also that all three interviews are presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1.)