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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

WHAT? -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

There's a scene in Roman Polanski's 1973 comedy WHAT? in which three comical housepainters are slapping paint on a wall in a villa in Italy.  It's one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie because, for a few brief moments, we actually get to watch paint dry.

The rest of the film tries really hard to maintain that level of excitement, but there's a reason why Roman Polanski is known more for drama and horror than comedy despite giving us the truly wonderful THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS in 1967. 

The story begins with an attempted rape--always surefire comedy gold--after which Nancy (Sydne Rome, SOME GIRLS DO, JUST A GIGOLO), an American tourist hitchhiking through Italy, seeks shelter in a rambling seaside villa inhabited by a menagerie of odd but not especially interesting characters, most of whom are sex-crazed or just plain crazed.

Nancy is one of those wide-eyed "Little Annie Fanny" types, overripe but innocent, always ending up with little or no clothes on.  Her spaced-out kewpie-doll manner kept reminding me of that time Farrah Fawcett was on "The Late Show" with David Letterman. 

The hapless Nancy will be lusted after by various inhabitants of the place (including Polanski himself as "Mosquito") who are weird but not comically so, and the loony ex-pimp Alex (Marcello Mastroianni, who is interesting by default). 

Eccentric Alex baffles Nancy with his impulsive sado-masochistic role-playing games such as him dressing up in a lion skin and insisting that she whip him, or dressing as a gendarme and whipping her.  When he suddenly has his way with her right there on the floor it's the film's one overtly sexual encounter.

Such ribald naughtiness wafts in and out of this largely dreary sex farce in which the story seems to be wandering as aimlessly as the half-dressed Nancy (her clothes keep getting stolen) as she noses around the spacious villa having meet-cutes and then writing it all down in her daily diary in childlike terms. 

Alternately smutty and silly, WHAT? is yet another variation on the old "Alice in Wonderland" story.  This rarely turns out as clever as filmmakers think it's going to (MALICE IN WONDERLAND) and is often an excuse for aimless surrealism mixed with various half-baked profundities.

Polanski seems to be making the whole thing up as he goes along until at last it can only fall apart like a house of cards. Strangely enough, though, it's this fourth-wall-breaking mess of an ending that I liked best of all. 

The Blu-ray from Severin Films is in 1080p full HD resolution with Dolby 2.0 English and Italian soundtracks.  No subtitles.  Extras consist of interviews with star Sydne Rome ("Sydne in Wonderland"), composer Claudion Gizzi ("Memories of a Young Pianist"), and cinematographer Marcello Gatti ("A Surreal Pop Movie"), and the film's trailer.  As usual, Severin has done a great job putting these extras together. 

On the plus side, WHAT? is scenic and has a nice classical music score, and Sydne Rome is easy to look at.  But despite some mildly amusing scenes here and there, I found it surprisingly dull.

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