Sandwiched between the incredible success of Rosemary’s Baby, the Sharon Tate trauma soaked Macbeth, and the classic Chinatown, is Roman Polanski’s largely forgotten film, What? Filmed on location using the gorgeous Italian villa of co-producer Carlo Ponti, the film can be considered little more than a disastrous sex comedy. It’s comes as no surprise that according to the late Roger Ebert’s half-star review, What’s title came from Ponti’s enraged response to seeing the film for the first time. As Ebert notes, it took tears for the film to find a distributor in the United States due to the amount of gratuitous nudity.

Sydne Rome stars as Nancy, a naïve, but well-traveled American visiting Rome. As the story begins, she is out hitchhiking with a trio of Italian men, when they attempt to rape her. She manages to escape the assault (while gradually losing her clothes) by boarding an elevator that takes her down the cliffs, and into a beautiful seaside Italian villa. She quickly learns that the well-appointed manse is occupied several inhabitants, each strange in their own uncomfortable way. She meets a syphilitic pimp (Marcello Mastroianni), Mosquito, a filthy harpoon enthusiast (an uncredited Polanski), Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith), the villa’s sleazy owner, a perverted priest (Guido Alberti) and lots of randy. There are women around as well, but their used strictly as sexual eye candy. Nancy does little more than find reasons to keep losing her clothes.

The idea of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland seen as a kind of wild sexual fantasy is nothing new. However, rarely has it been done in such a pointless way. One senses that Polanski made the film just so he could hang out with pretty women. His own character of Mosquito is so nicknamed because of his big stinger (“You probably think it’s something sexual”). I can’t imagine why.

Polanski has been accused of misogyny more than once, but nothing makes the case as well as What?  In an interview included on this release, star Sydne Rome reveals that Polanski’s inspiration for the role of Nancy was Little Annie Fanny, a Playboy comic strip character who loses her clothes at unfortunate moments. Watching What? It seems hard to believe that regular collaborator Gerard Brach (Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, Tess) was involved in co-writing something that largely feels like something Polanski scribbled out on a dinner napkin. Nancy isn’t much of a developed character; she’s put in one humiliating situation after another. The “laughs” come at her expense.

As for the rest of the actors, they turn up and do embarrassingly stupid things. Among other things, Mastroanni dresses up in a tiger suit and begs to be whipped. Hugh Griffith begs to see Nancy’s breasts, Polanski’s Mosquito rambles constantly about being an “ass man.” It’s all pointless with no sense of direction. Anyone looking for Polanski usual sense of fine craftsmanship will be disappointed.

What? is flat out awful. I’m guessing those involved wanted to get paid to hang out in a fancy villa in Rome. There’s absolutely no other reason they would have agreed to make this film. That said, for you Roman Polanski completeists out there, it’s awesome that Severin has made the rarely seen What? available to add to your collections.

Presented in the 2.39:1 What? offers an average 1080p transfer. According to the Blu-ray packaging, this print of the film was reportedly stolen from Carlo Ponti’s wine cellar, which might explain some of the apparent wear associated with the print. Scratches abound, and the image is rather soft throughout. However, it’s undoubtedly sharper than any of the bootlegs that have been floating around in recent years.

The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio presents more of an issue, as a persistent hiss and notable distortion occurs throughout much of the film. It’s still very watchable, however.

Subtitles are not included.

The following extras are available:

  • Sydne in Wonderland (16:43) The actress discusses how she came to be cast in the lead role. She speaks kindly of Polanski and Mastroianni but also of her initial reluctance to do nudity.
  • Memories of a Young Pianist (21:47) Composer Claudio Gizzi discusses his work here. Of particular interest are his attempts to arrange works by Mozart and Schubert.
  • A Surreal Pop Movie (16:02) Marcello Gatti, the film’s cinematographer, discusses locations, and working with Polanski.
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:55)