Throughout the 1970s, the films of Roman Polanski expressed a fiercely nihilistic and pessimistic viewpoint that few directors ever matched in popular cinema.
The man who survived the Holocaust as a Jewish child in Poland (his mother died at Auschwitz) and the Soviet dictatorship that controlled that country after the war, and whose pregnant wife Sharon Tate had been brutally slaughtered by the Manson gang in 1969, had no problem turning his camera on the world’s ugliest and most brutal realities, regardless of the subject matter.
His first film of the decade, the 1971 “Macbeth,” added a bleak ending suggesting the cycle of bloody violence to seize power would continue long after Macbeth’s murder. Polanski rewrote the ending of Robert Towne’s script for “Chinatown,” so that the villain wins and the heroes are left defeated and devastated. And in “The Tenant,” Polanski offered one of the darkest and most nightmarish endings in his entire cannon. Anyone looking for upbeat endings in the director’s 1970s cinema output probably went looking elsewhere.
The exception was Polanski’s 1973 film “What?” Based on an original script the director wrote with longtime collaborator Gerard Brach, it followed the adventures of a wide-eyed, optimistic young American girl who stumbles onto a strange Italian villa occupied by an assortment of weirdos. An often zany and surreal comedy, it was the only Polanski film of the 1970s that did not have a bleak, grim ending — in this case, it has a mostly comical one featuring the young woman, Nancy, escaping the villa, stark naked, in the pouring rain, and hitching a ride on a truck filled with pigs.
If it all sounds bizarre, it should be noted that “What?” was a hit in Italy but tanked in U.S. movie theaters after scathingly hostile reviews. The film disappeared quickly and remains one of Polanski’s least viewed movies.
That may change, now that Severin Films has released the movie on DVD and Blu-Ray to U.S. audiences. And while the film seems very much a product of its time, it has far more to offer than those savage early reviews might have indicated.
“What?” owes more than a bit to Polanski’s early passion for surrealism and theater of the absurd. Nancy is hitchhiking through Italy when she gets picked up by four men who pretend to be friendly, but actually intend to rape her (in a humorous twist to this scene, as Nancy tries to fight off the men, one of them loses and breaks his glasses, and then mistakes the bare bottom of one of his companions for Nancy — so the only sodomized rape here is man-on-man!) Nancy dashes off to a nearby villa, where an elevator shaped like a birdcage transports her down to the resort. No one seems to notice her, even though her shirt is torn, and a servant provides her with a room for the night.
The next morning, Nancy begins exploring the villa, and discovers a strange assortment of people there — including Alex, a former pimp (played by Marcello Mastroianni) who decides Nancy is just what he’s been looking for. The villa also includes Mosquito (played by Polanski), Alex’s chief rival, and the resort’s wealthy owner, Noblart (Hugh Griffith), who is slowly dying — but also thinks Nancy is just what he’s looking for.
A lot of American critics found the movie pointless and plodding, which in a sense is beside the point, since surrealism and absurdity don’t seek out traditional storylines. But there is a bit more structure to it that the critics first noticed. Nancy goes through a series of adventures on the first day, then winds up sleeping alone on the villa’s beach at night. The next day she finds herself living through that first day all over again — the exact same incidents and odd coincidences are repeated on day two.
Polanski has cited a debt in this film to Lewis Carroll and his “Alice in Wonderland” books. In a 1973 interview, Polanski said of Carroll, “I followed the irrational approach of his books, showing how in life today nobody listens to anyone else, nobody cares for anyone.”
He noted that he applied the same logic to “What?”
“Nobody even asks this girl’s name,” he said. “She’s just ‘that thing’ there that happens to be around … After all, that’s the way young people are in a world in which any mad thing is probable.”
Some of the early critics picked up on that. Vincent Canby, writing in The New York Times, noted, “It is not consistently inspired in its lunacy, but it is so totally without redeeming social value that it should be protected and, from time to time, cherished.”
The Christian Century’s Bea Rothenbuecher took a similar view, calling the movie an inspired and absurdist look at European decadence.
“In ‘What?,’ Polanski again proves his sensitivity as an artist by giving us an ambiguous satire of life today, using sex as a metaphor for our lost sense of innocence,” she wrote.
In fact, “What?” could be viewed as a chronicling of the abandonment of traditional values and social order that had started in the 1960s, and went full bloom by the early 1970s. Tired of standing up for values that seemed to be collapsing, the Italian villa in “What?” seems to be a refuge for those escaping life’s complexities, now more content to sit back, enjoy nice food, and have sex. Lots of it.
In a key moment, Alex negotiates with a dealer of rare art who has brought the masterpiece painting “The Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault for Noblart to purchase. But Noblart’s assistant Giovanni waves the man away, saying his boss has grown tired of sitting around observing art. “He’d rather eat an apple than look at an apple,” Giovanni says. The apple that Noblart is most interested in seeing, as it turns out, is all that Nancy has to offer.
Despite the film’s humor, there’s a dark side to all this that puts it closer to “Macbeth” and “The Tenant” than it initially appears. In a review of “What?” in her 1984 book “Roman Polanski,” Virginia Wright Wexman noted the despairing cynicism at the heart of the movie.
“The film’s idyllic setting and cheerful, sunny atmosphere make light of the nihilism and despair that inform it,” Wexman wrote. “It examines people without principles or purpose, who pass the time by copulating, eating gourmet food, and relishing the sound of crunching Ping-Pong balls.”
Wexman also makes note of the film’s “paranoid projection” — the sense of numerous characters, including Alex and Nancy, that they’re constantly being watched and spied on — a metaphor, perhaps, for Polanski’s early experiences with Soviet dominance of Poland?
Early in the film, during a key scene, Nancy gets into bed in her room, then notices a hole in the wall. She observes it, then decides to stick her pencil inside the hole. She turns over and goes to sleep … and as she does, the pencil disappears into the hole. This scene of a mysterious, possibly ominous hole in the wall, from an original script by Polanski and Brach, was curiously repeated in “The Tenant” — not an original script, but one the two screenwriters adopted from the novel by Roland Topor. In that movie, the central character, Trelkovsky, takes over the apartment of a women who committed suicide by throwing herself out the window. He comes to be haunted by her continued presence in the small apartment, which includes her clothing in the wardrobe, the furniture she left behind, and the mail she gets. At one point, Trelkovsky also finds a hole in the wall, and when he sticks his finger inside, he discovers … the dead woman’s tooth hidden in there.
There are other interesting similarities between Polanski’s 1973 surreal comedy and his 1976, equally surreal horror movie. If Trelkovsky seems polite, well mannered, and eager not to offend — exactly the same kind of personality as Nancy in “What?” — he also finds that his neighbors are odd, spy on him constantly, and may be far more threatening than they initially appeared. Nancy is an American in a villa inhabited by quirky Europeans, while Trelkovsky is a Polish Jew who is viewed as an outsider by the cold and nativist Parisians in his building.
In fact, the “What?” setup of an outsider in an enclosed villa bears some similarities to Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” of the horror films “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant,” where apartments become not sanctuaries and safe havens for the main protagonists, but virtual prison-like cells and projections of the occupant’s social fears and anxieties. A similar setup was used in Polanski’s 2002 historical Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” where the Polish Jew Szpilman hides in a vacant apartment surrounded by Germans, constantly fearful of being discovered by the Nazis.
“What?” is the lightest of these films, and its paranoia is far more subdued. Still, Polanski’s attempt to satirize European decadence is worth rediscovering today, even if the movie is not likely to make anyone forget “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Chinatown.”
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..