What? (1972)

What? (1972)

“First I lost my bags, then my room, and now my trousers!”

A naive American hitchhiker (Sydne Rome) is sexually humiliated by the denizens of a warped Italian villa, including an ex-pimp (Marcello Mastroianni) and a dying millionaire (Hugh Griffith).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Dumb Blondes
  • Living Nightmare
  • Marcello Mastroianni Films
  • Roman Polanski Films

This hideously awful “black comedy” by Roman Polanski possesses almost no redeeming qualities: it’s sexist, dull, offensive, and poorly acted. Although some have described What? as a variant on “Alice in Wonderland”, the comparison is unmerited: while Carroll’s pre-pubescent Alice experiences humorously bizarre encounters with creatures from alternate universes, Rome is simply preyed upon by countless lechers; but, since she’s a prototypical “dumb blonde” hippie, she gives in rather than fighting back, and thus we have almost no sympathy for her. When she inexplicably starts experiencing “deja vu” — and we’re forced to watch some of the same exact scenarios all over again — it’s literally painful. Perhaps most upsetting of all is how gorgeous Polanski’s production values and settings are, as always — what a waste!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The beautiful Italian setting

Must See?
No. Film fanatics shouldn’t have to suffer through Polanski’s mistakes.


One thought on “What? (1972)

  1. First viewing. Not a must – tho I don’t object to it as strongly as the assessment. I just don’t think it’s very good; I do think it’s trying to accomplish something (unless, of course, it was made as a tax write-off) – it just doesn’t succeed.

    ‘What?’ appears (the operative word) to be a Fellini-esque (thus Mastroianni?) comment on the repetitiveness of the decadent lifestyle. I do find it amusing when some of the characters end up saying the exact same things they’ve said before; that actually puts a chill on the proceedings and accents what may be Polanski’s point. (As well as the fact that Polanski casts himself as a character who can’t stand the people surrounding him.)

    But – again – this could just be one big in-joke. (Note the ending – in which Rome makes it clear to Mastroianni, as she’s escaping, that she knows the two of them are part of a film being made.) If that’s what it is…it’s an absolutely sumptuously photographed one (the fact that the beauty of the film offsets the proceedings is a comment in itself); a somewhat-intriguing one subliminally; an occasionally moving one (i.e., the Mozart duet); a perhaps inadvertently offensive one; but, as black comedy, not a very funny one.

    I’m certainly not trying to defend. But I don’t think Polanski has ever set out to make a bad film. He has always been preoccupied with the dark side of human nature, and this becomes all the more apparent in his more difficult films – such as this one, ‘Cul-de-sac’ (which annoys me), ‘The Tenant’, ‘Bitter Moon’ (oy!). He’s among the most inward of filmmakers – and, at some point, that’s bound to result in a film like ‘What?’

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