Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Unseen - What? (1972)

In my previous review, I recommended Dario Argento's Suspiria as the ultimate in twisted fairy tales, but that was before I saw Roman Polanski's
What? While I stand firmly by my endorsement of Argento's candy-colored nightmare, this loose adaptation of Alice in Wonderland deserves some notice as it takes you down a very dark and twisted rabbit hole, into the mind of its troubled director/co-writer.
After the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson family, Polanski went onto make two of the more notorious movies in his filmography: his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and What, which is generally regarded as the director’s worst film.
What isn’t bad though; it’s just not exactly for everyone, confirmed by the fact that it has yet to be released in the US. And as a result of Polanski’s legal problems, I doubt American audiences will be seeing it anytime soon.

To describe What would not do the movie justice, but I’ll try. It follows the frequently undressed Nancy (Sydne Rome), an American tourist travelling along the Italian coast, who takes shelter at Mr. Noblart’s (Joseph Griffith) seaside villa after escaping from three would-be rapists. The house isn’t much of a haven though; it is inhabited by weirdoes and sexual deviants of all kinds, like an ex-pimp with a tiger fetish (Marcello Mastroianni) and a young fisherman nicknamed Mosquito because of his “big stinger” (played by Polanski, no less). The actual purpose of the villa is unknown throughout the picture; is it a private residence, convalescent home, vacation resort or youth hostel? Consider that Polanski’s previous film, Macbeth, was produced by Playboy magazine and the function of Noblart’s villa becomes clear. In all likelihood, the house is modeled after the infamous Playboy Mansion, where I’m sure Polanski spent plenty of time during his Hollywood tenure.

Like Suspiria, What is a nonsensical nightmare: there is no real sense of time or geography, characters appear and disappear, and events happen without any rhyme or reason. But while Argento infuses every frame with menace, Polanski views What’s proceedings through an absurdist’s eye, turning even the most disturbing events humorous. Nancy is under constant sexual threat but her dim-wittedness combined with the film’s tone render these threats ridiculous and harmless. It’s hard to take an attacker seriously when he’s dressed like Napoleon and taking orders from a tree.

What may be Polanski Gone Wild, but you can at least recognize the filmmaker’s unique signature. There’s plenty of paranoia and suspense left over from Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, and the filmmaker’s strange sense of humor works better here than in The Fearless Vampire Killers. In fact, much of What – especially the head-scratching finale – seems to be a dry run for the similarly bizarre but better executed The Tenant, released four years later.

What remains unavailable in America, but for those of you on the Bru’s side of the pond there is an uncut and remastered DVD. If you consider yourself to be a fan of Roman Polanski’s work, I highly recommend you seek out a copy, or watch for it to show up at your local revival cinema (it screened at LA’s Silent Movie Theatre just last month). If nothing else, I can guarantee your reaction to What will reflect its title.

1 comment:

The Bru said...

I really do want to see this one. Next one in my queue.


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