BR: What? / Che? (1974)

August 9, 2016 | By

What1972_sFilm:  Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Severin Film

Region: A, B, C

Released:  April 26, 2016

Genre:  Erotic Comedy

Synopsis: After evading a trio of rapists and finding relative safety in a coastal villa, little Nancy struggles to keep her clothes on and find meaning from her strange encounters with the villa’s misanthropic guests. Relax, it’s a comedy.

Special Features:  3 Interview Featurettes from 2009: “Sydne in Wonderland: Interview with actress Sydne Rome” (16:43) + “Memories of a Young Pianist: Interview with composer Claudio Gizzi” (21:47)  + “A Surreal Pop Movie: Interview with cinematographer Marcello Gatti” (16:04) / Theatrical Trailer.





After the international success of Cul-de-sac (1966), Roman Polanski struck a sweet deal to make Dance of the Vampires (1967), a spoof of classic vampire films, but MGM wasn’t exactly pleased with the director’s sense of humour, the film’s cost, and its length. The film’s producer forced a recut which made an already odd work jumbled, and yet from the ashes of what was written off as a critical and financial dud, Polanski emerged with Paramount’s horror blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and fell back into the good graces of Hollywood.

The brutal murder by the Manson maniacs of wife and Vampires co-star Tate had Polanski channel loss and rage into his brutal adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1971), a film quietly co-produced by Playboy who saw the good in letting an artist develop a work according to his instincts, and yet (presumably) that same freedom yielded another oddball comedy that lived up to its name.

Italian producer Carlo Ponti (Doctor Zhivago) bankrolled the appropriately titled What? / Che? a sex comedy crafted by Polanski and longtime co-writer Gerald Brach, shot in the gorgeous seaside locale of Amalfi. A talent search for the heroine yielded pretty and brave Sydne Rome, an American living in Italy whose career had consisted of gradually larger albeit limited film roles.

According to Rome’s interview, taped for Severin’s 2009 Region 2 DVD, Polanski’s character guidance consisted of approaching heroine Nancy as a variation of Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny, a big-busted heroine constantly chased by men, and whose cleavage consistently explodes in awkward situations; and as an old, sage schoolteacher – suggestions that Rome fused into a successful creation amid many (now politically incorrect) misadventures.

As good as Rome is in the admittedly limited role of a half-naked, puzzled girl who scribbles personal notations of daily experiences in a diary using a chunky children’s red pencil, Polanski’s script meanders, teasing yet never really gelling into anything truly satirical or rewarding, and when he’s pushed Nancy’s misadventures as far as he can, he ends the film with a purported twist that’s more of a cheat – a movie-within-a-movie – that makes no sense, if not feels like a slapped-on finale to end an idea better suited for a short film, or a tighter feature film.

As a humorist, Polanski’s strength lie in creating absurd scenarios – his early short Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) is tight, playful, and as long as it needs to be – whereas Vampires proved too strange and long. A decade later Polanski and Brach would create Pirates (1986), probably the biggest disaster of the director’s career, and a film (at present) still unavailable in North America because it too failed to spoof another classic genre, the pirate movie.

What’s story has Rome tumbling out of a car and running from three strangers who’d clearly offered the pretty girl a lift so they could rape her. She finds refuge in a remote, exquisite cliffside villa packed with its own array of strange guests who seem to be on an extended stay, awaiting the demise of their wealthy uncle.

As her clothes are stolen in stages, Rome’s first scenes in the villa have her buck naked, covering her delicate areas with her giant diary (hence the cheeky poster art), and each night she scribbles basic summations of her encounters, including a lecherous priest, a former pimp (Marcello Mastroianni) with syphilis, two potheads who ‘give’ and ‘take’ during intercourse with their conquests, a weasel with a harpoon named Mosquito (Polanski), and the wealthy uncle (Hugh Griffith) who enjoys some generous views of (actress) Rome before he finally expires.

What? is an absurdist sex comedy, but more often than not it’s unfunny and even painful to see actors like Mastroianni be ridiculous without any reason (not to mention reveal a bit more of their physical selves than expected).

More positive aspects that substantially temper the wonkiness of Polanski’s tale are the production values into which Ponti poured substantial resources. The villa’s exteriors were shot by Giuseppe Ruzzolini (My Name is NobodyFirestarter), a gifted cinematographer with a fine eye for exterior compositions and rich colour. Main cinematographer Marcello Gatti (Moses the Lawgiver) filmed the interiors with an eye for soft colours, tempering the modish seventies style that includes big hair, broad clothes, and pop art décor.

Ponti himself trucked in selected works of art – the paintings by various masters on the villa walls are 100% real – and the villa’s interior hallways and stairwells are structured like an elaborate maze. Evoking Crete’s mythic maze and the Minotaur, Nancy walks cautiously down its long corridors, grasping her diary (or covering her breasts) while Polanski’s camera stalks her from a patient distance, almost anticipating the shock appearance of a Minotaur variant (or sex maniac).

When bits of ridiculousness work, they’re short and sweet gems, such as Nancy creeping down a hallway at night, trying to be as quiet as a mouse, opening bedroom doors to check who’s asleep and awake, but accidentally opening a closet that sends a cacophony of clutter into the hall.

Another minor gem has Nancy on the beach trying to wind an alarm clock that literally goes boing! spilling its contents onto the rocks. She picks up the random pieces and like a child, figures that packing them back into the case will make the clock tick again. The scene also forms a midsection to a ridiculous gag in which she keeps losing her clothes, waking up topless when Mosquito claims (and repairs) her torn T-shirt as his own, and pant-less because of a fetishistic priest.

Composer Claudio Gizzi would achieve another career high with his skillful adaptations of classical pieces, perfectly fitted to the tone, emotional subtext, and as counterpoint to the ridiculous antics in What? and as he recounts in the excellent interview from 2009, this was among the last of his too few film scores. The featurette has him playing the gorgeous main theme from Blood for Dracula (1974) and recalling his entry into film as a pianist and adaptor for Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973), respectively, and the career switch to a more executive position with a record label when director associations began to evaporate, weakening his opportunities for steady work.

Both Rome and cinematographer Gatti extol their admiration for Polanski and the film in their separate interviews, giving credence to a work that may have made more sense to its cast and crew than audiences.

Severin’s 2016 Blu-ray and in-tandem DVD mark the first time What? has appeared as a legit video release in North America. A bootleg appeared in 2005 as a non-anamorphic transfer, and some prior editions were reportedly taken from shorter edits. Severin’s new release is the definitive edition, allowing Polanski fans and connoisseurs of seventies sex comedies to relish the oddities of this rarely seen production which could’ve been another career setback until Paramount’s Robert Evans called again, luring the director from his sunny European exile back to America to make the multi-Oscar-winning Chinatown (1974).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
Vendor Search Links: — —

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

Comments are closed.