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A young and innocent American girl named Nancy (Sydne Rome) is journeying across Europe when she is sexually assaulted by three men on the road in an unnamed Italian city. She escapes the ordeal and takes shelter in a mysterious seaside villa, where she meets a cavalcade of strange tenants.

 What?
In the year 2016, Roman Polanski’s What? (aka: Che?, Quoi?, and Diary of Forbidden Dreams) carries the stigma of being a politically incorrect sex farce made by a man convicted of sexual abuse. But, when it was released in 1972, it carried the similarly burdensome label of box-office disaster. Polanski was convinced that What? would be his masterpiece, to the point that he famously bet his Chinatown (1974) salary on its success (producer Robert Evans promised to pay him whatever What? grossed on its first weekend). The resulting failure, coupled with the odium of its X-rated content, left What? adrift in obscurity for decades as a forgotten footnote between his most successful and acclaimed films – Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Macbeth (1971), and the aforementioned Chinatown.

Of course, there was always the possibility that What? was a flop because it wasn’t very good. It’s hard to designate it ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ because it’s a very specific version of a pretty obnoxious subgenre – the Italian sex comedy. Comedy maybe the most critically subjective aspect of any art and/or entertainment and I personally suffer an acute allergy to Italian comedies, so the deck was stacked against this particular movie. Fortunately, the Polish-born director isn’t particularly interested in the bug-eyed, open-mouthed histrionics that plague most Italian-made sex comedies. What?’s sense of humour is derived from absurdities, Buñuel-esque surrealism, and the characters’ deadpan reactions to insanity. It falls in line with Polanski’s other early comedies, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Pirates (1986). All three films are absurdist variations on familiar tropes – though Vampire Killers and Pirates are clearly direct spoofs of the Hammer horror movies and swashbucklers, while Polanski seems to be satirizing a broader view of society in the case of What?. After about 20 minutes of acclimating myself to the style of laughs that Polanski may have been aiming for – which are far more innocent than the opening rape joke implies – I gave in and found myself laughing along with the nonsense.

 What?
What? is also a not-so-secret loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). This is most evident in the basic concept – a virginal girl falls into a madhouse situation where nothing makes sense and characters sort of ignore her – as well as Sydne Rome’s sweet-natured, matter of fact performance and a few on-the-nose references (like a pseudo tea party moment). Curiously, What? wasn’t the only ‘70s sexploitation comedy to be based on Carroll’s story, because, only a few years later, Bud Townsend made a more high-concept version called Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976). Though normally considered a children’s book and an influential fantasy story, Carroll's tale of a young girl’s journey into metaphorical adulthood is structurally and thematically ripe for swapping when it comes to the dawn of ‘classy’ porno-chic entertainment. The other major literary influence seems to be the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), which actually shares some basic themes with Alice in Wonderland. That story was specifically adapted for Tatsumi Kumashiro’s Woman Hell: Woods are Wet (Japanese: Onna Jigoku: Mori wa Nureta, 1973; directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro) and, more famously, for Jesús Franco’s very Alice in Wonderland-esque and satirically-slanted Marquis de Sade’s Justine (aka: Deadly Sanctuary and Justine and Juliet,1968).

 What?

Video


What? isn’t quite what you’d call a ‘lost film,’ but it was certainly a rarity on home video, especially in North America, where it never saw an official VHS or DVD release. Twentieth Century Fox released an anamorphic version in Italy, A-Film released one in Holland, and Severin themselves released one in the UK. It seems there was some kind of rights issue, because it is their only R2 exclusive DVD or Blu-ray. For the film’s RA/1 dual Blu-ray and DVD release, Severin went back to their uncut source print (“reportedly stolen from the wine cellar of producer Carlo Ponti” – according to their advertising) for a new 2K scan, which is presented here in 1080p, 2.35:1 HD video. The results are mixed, but mostly great, specifically in terms of close-up detail and neatly-defined edges. Contrast levels appear accurate and black levels keep elemental separation tight. The major issue is the prevalent presence of digital fuzz, which looks less like film grain and more like telecine scan noise. Though it looks cleaner in motion than it does here on the page, the noise still hampers the clarity of some wide-angle images, which is definitely a problem, given the fact that cinematographers Marcello Gatti and Giuseppe Ruzzolini shot so much of the movie in medium-to-wide angles. Despite the discolouration the grain/noise may cause, the natural and lively palette is vibrant and consistent without any notable bleeding. The tone is perhaps a shade more blue than other releases, but the warmer hues are not adversely affected.

I happen to have a review screener of the older R2 scan (I never managed to review it), but it is a single-layer burned disc and the increase in compression makes comparison between the transfers useless.

Audio


What? is presented in uncompressed LPCM and its original mono. There are English and Italian dialogue options, but I don’t see much reason to bother with the Italian track, as it is designed to be a primarily English-friendly movie. Though a number of scenes were likely shot without sound (as is tradition with many Italian productions/co-productions) and some of the ADR lipsync is a bit off, the majority of the cast is clearly speaking English and those that are speaking Italian aren’t meant to be understood by the audience. Dialogue is a bit tinny, but no more than the average mono track from the ‘70s. There is very little distortion or hiss on the harder consonants. The location-captured audio and additional natural ambiences (much of which I’m sure was added in post), including the persistent buzz of cicadas and softly crashing waves, is neatly separated and clean. The rich and playful score is a mix of popular classical offerings and original compositions from Claudio Gizzi.

 What?

Extras


The extras, all of which were created for Severin’s R2 DVD, include:
  • Sydne In Wonderland (16:40, SD) – Star Sydne Rome discusses the long process of being cast for What?, working with Polanski, the character’s origins in the Playboy strip Little Annie Fanny, on-set improvisation with Marcello Mastroianni, and dealing with on-screen nudity.
  • Memories Of A Young Pianist[/i ](21:30, SD) – In the second interview, composer Claudio Gizzi plays a little piano for us, then talks about his career and the mixed approach to [i]What?’s soundtrack.
  • A Surreal Pop Movie (16:00, SD) – In the final interview, cinematographer Marcello Gatti discusses his role in the production, as well as a number of his other films from the era.
  • Italian Trailer


 What?

Overall


What? is not the anomaly that some Polanski fans have implied it is and much better than its Italian sex comedy roots may imply (at least to someone that dreads them). It won’t garner too many comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown (though, there are plenty of thematic similarities if you want to look for them) and it feels about 20 minutes too long, but it’s also quite funny and beautifully shot. Severin’s new Blu-ray is a sizable upgrade over earlier R2 DVD versions (despite some telecine noise issues), sounds great, and includes three informative interviews with cast and crew members.

Oh, and speaking of sex comedies, Severin Films also recently released a documentary entitled That’s Sexploitation!, directed by none other than Basket Case and Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter. I feel like I’ve fallen too far behind to give that Blu-ray a proper review (it was released April 26th), but it was certainly a fun disc, complete with three-plus hours of shorts from the Something Weird archives. Fans of movies like What? and its far less ‘classy’ counterparts may want to take notice.

 What?
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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