Friday, October 19, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.7: Roman Polanski's What?


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 0 (F)

I have a basic rule about grades: there is no A+, and there is no F-. Oh, sure, the whole grading system is arbitrary and only useful as a way to organize my thoughts and give the reader a basic idea of where I stand, but A and F are final to me, with anything beyond being hyperbolic and unconstructive to criticism. It is with extreme restraint, then, that I limit myself to giving Roman Polanski’s borderline unwatchable id-upchuck What? (also known as Diary of Forbidden Dreams) an F. Filmed in Italy after producer Carlo Ponti essentially gave Polanski a carte blanche and a gorgeous villa to film in. It’s telling that the film, made in Polanski’s most fruitful and exciting period, was barely released and is damn near impossible to find today: it’s fucking abysmal.

Nancy (Sydne Rome) is a young, bubbleheaded blonde American vacationing in Italy. The film begins with an attempted gang rape (not a good start) by a group of Italian thugs who pick Nancy up. She escapes to an Italian villa, where she deals with an assortment of weird characters: Mosquito (Polanski), a short ping-pong and fishing enthusiast who describes himself as an ass man; Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith), a man who’s constantly in danger of having a heart attack; a pair of women, one always in a swimsuit, one always nude; and Alex (Marcello Mastroianni), a syphilitic former pimp who begins a strange relationship with Nancy. Then a bunch of shit happens.

Oh dear, that sounds rather reductive, doesn’t it? Look, I appreciate surrealism and absurdism as much as the next guy: I adore David Lynch, greatly admire Polanski influence Samuel Beckett, and have enjoyed a number of Polanski’s own absudist-influenced works (The Fearless Vampire Killers, Cul-de-sac). But then, those works always had some overarching vision and structure to them. Even if the point was to illustrate that the world was without reason, it was enough. Polanski’s own absurdist visions were filtered through a strong genre structure. Not here: it’s all a bunch of vaguely connected scenes of systematic abuse of a beautiful woman, lame sex jokes (one exchange: “they call me Mosquito because I sting with my big stinger”, and then Polanski pulls out a harpoon), and desperate flailing.

The film has been compared as a strange, sexy riff on Alice in Wonderland by way of Fellini and absurdist theatre influences, but that’s ultimately giving it too much credit. Polanski plays with a number of his usual themes- madness, world without order, power plays- but without anything to keep his indulgences in check.  Rome plays strange S&M games with Mastroianni (animal tamer and tiger, general and interrogation subject), but he doesn’t have anything approaching a perspective on them. Various characters sexually assault and abuse Rome, whose eternal optimism and naiveté is the closest  thing the film has approaching character. Rome’s assault is ostensibly another one of Polanski’s victimized, dominated heroines, but he doesn’t seem to have any empathy for Rome, and the rampant misogyny never feels self-critical. Mastroianni struts around in sad self-parody. Scenes last well beyond their logical end-point and often repeat each other (sometimes intentionally and yet still without any real purpose). The best scene in this scribble of a film involves Hugh Griffith dying fulfilled after Rome shows him her vagina, and even that’s a glib connection between sex and death that even Freud would probably have rolled his eyes at. Oh, by the way, the film ends in the most idiotically meta way possible. Really, just look at the title and take a wild guess as to what happens, there’s probably no way it’s as dumb as the ending of this film.

Polanski made What? as the director behind diamond-cut masterpieces like Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby, cult hit The Fearless Vampire Killers, a daring re-imagination of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the underrated chamber-piece Cul-de-sac. No doubt his reputation as an eccentric genius got the best of him and convinced him he could do no wrong. Polanski wasn’t yet known as the weird creep guilty of child rape, but What? plays like a queasy piece of foreshadowing to Polanski’s crime, a point where a director’s decadent but intoxicating style and lifestyle started to curdle into something nasty. Shortly after the film was made, Polanski claimed it was the best thing he had ever done. It may feel like a hackneyed and smug way to end this, but there’s really only one way to react to that: what?

This film is not available on DVD or VHS in the U.S. as far as I know. The morbidly curious can check it out on Amazon Instant Video. But please don’t.

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