James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
A female American hitchhiker escapes a trio of rapists and holes up for a couple of days in the company of a group of eccentrics in an Italian villa, in this surreal 1972 comedy from Roman Polanski
It's nothing short of a mystery how the director of Repulsion, Chinatown and The Pianist could have come up with anything quite as crass and irritating as this tiresome sex comedy. Francis Ford Coppola might have plumbed the depths with Jack, Robert Altman might have bitterly divided critics with Popeye and Dr T & The Women, and Woody Allen might have been intent in recent years to soil the memory of his one-time genius with all manner of lazy comedies, but none of them comes close to the sheer witless inanity of this jaw-droppingly awful film.
Self-indulgent, directionless and woefully unfunny, with a nasty streak of misogyny thrown in, What? (aka Che?) starts with a gang rape played as slapstick and goes downhill from there. Ostensibly billed as a kind of Alice in erotic Wonderland, Sydne Rome plays Nancy, an American hitchhiker in Italy who is forced to flee the aforementioned rape and take refuge in a nearby villa. There she is welcomed by a motley collection of lecherous, predatory perverts and oddballs, whom she spends the rest of the film fending off. And that's it.
Most of the time, Rome is semi-naked because - what do you know? - someone has stolen her clothes, but she remains breezy and upbeat about her lot, displaying all the acting talents of a 1970s porn star as she oozes the guileless vacuity of a teen cheerleader even as she is being abused.
One morning Nancy wakes up to find a strange middle-aged man burying his face between her thighs. "That's preposterous," she says without much conviction, before sitting down to play a Mozart piano duet with him. Another time she is slapped, handcuffed and beaten with a crop by Marcello Mastroiani. "I love you, I love you," she cries. This is a film in which no doesn't necessarily mean no after all.
And so it goes on - a passing workman lunges at Nancy with a roller and paints her naked thigh blue; she is mounted by a dog which subsequently rips her remaining clothes from her; and she is chased around the patio by an old bearded man in a wheelchair in a scene that wouldn't even do justice to Benny Hill.
Apparently Polanski knew exactly what he wanted of Nancy's character, as Sydne Rome explains in one of the documentaries that accompany the DVD: "This is a part that's between Little Annie Fanny - who was a comic strip character in 'Playboy' and she always ran around and her breasts kept popping out - and an old school teacher," she says.
None of the other characters is any better developed - they're all tics and self-conscious eccentricities - and the script is made up almost entirely of banalities. Worst of all, about half way through the movie in a kind of Groundhog Day conceit, the same events start to happen to Nancy for a second time, forcing the audience to endure them all over again.
Polanski was clearly hoping to give the film some kind of ballast by playing on a recognisable heavyweight art tradition of absurdity and surrealism, but instead it's a film that has all the wit and sophistication of a sub-Carry On sex comedy. Yes, he alludes to Lewis Carroll - so there's Tweedledum and Tweedledee-type characters and a version of a Mad Hatter's tea party among other references, but these add precisely nothing to the mix. God only knows what arthouse legend Mastroianni was thinking when he signed up because it's a role that would have been far better suited to Robin Askwith.
Admittedly the film looks pretty good - it was jointly photographed by The Battle Of Algiers' DP Marcello Gatti and Pier Paolo Pasolini collaborator Giuseppe Ruzzolini - but that's the only silver lining on a very black cloud and it's not nearly enough.
So don't be tempted, not even in a spirit of ironic superiority, to try to fathom how a great director could misfire so spectacularly. Don't even come here in the vain hope of cheap titillation. Watch something else instead. Or just stare at the floor for 114 minutes.
A terrible self-indulgent piece of misogynist trash from an otherwise great director.
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