What? really could not have been more aptly titled.
In light of the release of Polanski’s newest, The Ghost Writer, I decided to finally take a gander at what is arguably the least seen, screened, and appreciated (a close tie to Pirates) movie by the maestro. Not more than thirty minutes in, it was clear to me that this was his 1941, or his Fast Company, perhaps his New York, New York? It is Polanski at his lightest – a sexy, comedic work that is both clearly signature but undeniably impersonal.
What? is somewhat challenging to fit into his canon. It is pure Polanski and not quite like any other film of his.
However, Jonathan Rosenbaum comes close in his review of the unappreciated Bitter Moon. The unguarded, jubilant craziness of Bitter Moon does in fact have roots in What? Rosenbaum argues that What? was kind of a rehearsal for Bitter Moon. I concur, namely when one considers how aggressively sex (but not sexuality) unites the characters. This is certainly true of both films.
In fact, I can see many recurring moments in What? that Polanski had and would integrate into other films:
The lone hero(ine) against the ensemble. The terms of a unique, hidden society. The roundabout narrative structure. The alienation of paranoia. The position of being lost, alone, and with no outreach. The stranger in a strange land.
For me, Polanski has always been a director of “interior spaces.” I mean that in every sense. Even when the narratives aren’t explicitly about the unseen foe or the conspiracy of the “other” (Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Frantic), Polanski loves to generate momentum in madness – of a protagonist swirled up in his or her own escape and desperation.
For instance, an argument can be made that pits the figurative hunger of Denuve’s repressed housewife in Repulsion against Brody’s literal hunger in The Pianist. Context almost never mattered when watching these films because the technique and feeling were so vital and interconnected. When you look past the Holocaust setting or the warped, torn walls of Repulsion, you have at their core portraits of desperate people being hounded by mostly unseen forces. Again, it is madness that builds and builds. Ironically, The Pianist ends more optimistically than Repulsion and other Polanski stories.
What? actually has all of these very Polanski traits. What makes it so different is that for the only time in his career, I sensed that he was embracing a pure…weirdness. It is a film that deliberately, consciously wants to be strange and vulgar.
And it is. But art it does not become.
The original theatrical trailer for What? perfectly captures the randomness of the feature. Each scene is constructed as well as only Polanski could. A stylistic hodgepodge: The trailer is the film, the film is the trailer. The lead girl makes her rounds in this Mediterranean villa and the surrounding beach, is subjected to a series of sexual oddities and temptations (most of which she indulges in), and then she’s gone and the movie ends. Well, it ends with a pursuit not unlike many other Polanski films. Without the weight, of course.
It brought about a chuckle when Schubert’s Death and the Maiden appeared on the soundtrack. How very different the context here when compared to the 1993 film of the same name (which I also think, like Bitter Moon, requires reconsideration by critics and Polanski supporters alike).
Sydne Rome seems blissfully unaware of what is going on during most of this journey – which may add a lot to the point of the film entire. It is not so much that she performs inadequately but rather that her character is not supposed to be reacting very much at all. This is a vital difference between her American tourist and most of the women in Polanski’s oeuvre. She is defined by sex as opposed to sexuality. No better way to illustrate this point than the opening scene where she is literally nearly raped by a group of men and seems to not recall this traumatic moment mere seconds later.
She might be the most nude of all Polanski’s actresses – with the exception of Seigner in, say, Bitter Moon (The Ninth Gate is its own thing altogether). Bitter Moon’s pulp content enriches her femme fatale in ways that Rome is unable to explore simply because her character – and the What? script – is so inconsequential. And it is likely one of the points of the film: Actions have little to no consequence.
This, too, explains why Marcello Mastroianni deliberately hams it up. His presence is always iconic and watchable but it is surprising how brief his time feels in this movie. Really, he and the beachfront collective are the zaniest neighbors this side of The Tenant.
I suppose it goes without saying that What? is hard to ignore due to Polanski’s stature as a filmmaker. I made analogous comparisons of this film to other exceptions like Fast Company (with regards to Mr. Cronenberg). But maybe it can best be described as his Fear and Desire. There is so much that could have worked in Kubrick’s long lost war movie, made before Killer’s Kiss. But it was evident that Kubrick was still honing both content and technique and his film exists, for the connoisseur, almost as a time capsule of an artist in vitro.
What? is Polanski flexing with the closest thing to a screwball comedy as he’s ever made or will make (I think) and it does work if you have already been acquainted with his vocabulary. Which is likely why critics and audiences panned the movie upon release in 1972 – without hindsight, it really would have been difficult to understand this shorthand: Polanski Lite. It was too soon to consider because Polanski had yet to give us his best stuff.
Everything we need to know about the playfulness of What? can be found in the last scene. Our aloof heroine is being trucked away to, presumably, Istanbul. Mastroianni pleads for her to come back. She responds that unless she makes her exit, the film (yes, the film we, the audience, are watching) cannot come to an end. Mastroianni asks “What?” and she replies that yes – yes – this is the film!
This moment of fourth wall negligence follows suit to a finale such as the one which concludes the iconic The Holy Mountain. However, unlike the latter, Polanski’s film actually leaves me with more questions – comparatively no small feat with respect to an avant garde giant of the likes of Alejandro Jodorowski.
Apt title, indeed.
David Chien is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.