Color, 1972, 113m.
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Sydne Rome, Hugh Griffith, Romolo Valli, Roman Polanski
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), (DVD) (UK R0 PAL), Koch Media (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Fox (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
After losing his wife in the Charles Manson tragedy, Roman Polanski turned out a double header of decidedly uncommercial (and antisocial) projects: 1971’s Macbeth and this peculiar black comedy, which plays like a remake of Cul-de-sac outfitted as a spoof of softcore porn.
American actress Sydne Rome stars as naïve Nancy, an often naked tourist in Italy who falls prey one night to a carload of would-be rapists who inflict far more damage on themselves than their intended victim. Her escape leads to a remote seaside villa, where her mere presence sets off a chain of comedic sexual escapades involving lecherous ex-pimp Alex (Mastroianni) and a colorful cast of supporting characters, including an unbilled, moustached Polanski as the harpoon-toting Mosquito.
For those willing to go along with the free-association plot (which involves fashion-conscious nudists and weird unseen tenants), this is fairly amusing, eccentric viewing, with the cast obviously having fun in an opulent setting. The lazy Mediterranean atmosphere is the perfect dreamy locale, while Mastroianni still exudes the effortless charm found in his earlier Fellini outings. The classy score by Blood for Dracula’s Claudio Gizzi incorporates Mozart and Beethoven, keeping things classy and bouncy even in the erratic final act, which finally justifies the title with its concluding lines of shouted dialogue.
Virtually forgotten now, What? failed to ignite the box office when it was released in 1972 (with a dubious X rating in the US). Following the success of Chinatown, distributor Avco Embassy removed 20 minutes and reshuffled many scenes, marketing the jumpy new product as a sex film called Diary of Forbidden Dreams. This edition remained most widely available on home video with the scope photography butchered to full frame as badly as the narrative itself. The original was eventually released on DVD first in the form of the Italian DVD, anamorphically enhanced and uncut. The transfer looks nice apart from the deliberately murky nocturnal opener and was derived from the Italian negative; audio options include a gimmicky 5.1 remix and original mono presentation of the Italian soundtrack, or the original English language version with obligatory (but tiny) Italian subtitles. Extras include a snappily-edited Italian trailer and a new Italian-language interview with Rome, whose plastic cheeks look rather unearthly, to put it charitably.
A more full-blown, English-friendly version came down the pike several years later as Severin Films' inaugural UK release, with what appears to be the same transfer but now without the forced subtitles or phony audio tweaking. Only the English track is included, which is fine considering that's how the film was shot. The disc carries over the same trailer but adds a host of new extras, including a new 16- minute English interview with Rome (who talks about her memories of Polanski, the perception of the film as erotic even though it contains no actual sex scenes, and the gorgeous villa location). Next up, the enigmatic Claudio Gizzi finally appears on camera for "Memories of a Young Pianist," a 21-minute interview in which he covers everything from his early collaborations with Visconti (including Death in Venice) to a thorough dissection of his majestic work for the two Paul Morrissey films, even playing the main theme from Blood for Dracula on his piano over the closing credits. Finally, cinematographer Marcello Gatti (who also shot The Battle of Algiers) appears for the 16-minute "A Surreal Pop Movie," who focuses mainly on the Polanski shoot and his relationships with the crew while fleetingly touching on some of his other major Italian productions.
In late 2015, Koch Media issued a Region B Blu-ray and a separate DVD of the film, marking its HD debut. The transfer looks fairly good considering the hit-and-miss nature of the film (and improves considerably over the DVD transfer in every way); darker scenes are still problematic due to low lighting and heavy grain (resulting in some chroma noise as well), but the detail levels and colors look fine. However, there's a strong layer of "frozen grain" (for lack of a better term) casting a sheen over the entire film, and it's pretty distracting. The bit rate is surprisingly robust, rarely dipping below 30Mbps and often topping out over 40, though this may be to prevent that weird grain pattern from causing the image to completely break apart at times. Audio options in DTS-HD MA are English, Italian, or German, with optional German subtitles. The three featurettes from the Severin release are carried over here, though the two Italian-language ones have no English subtitle options. Also included are the German and Italian trailers and a gallery of stills and posters.
Four months later, Severin brought Polanski's film to the United States with separate Blu-ray and DVD editions carrying over all three of its featurettes (with subtitles back in place), the trailer, and an optional Italian track (no subs) in addition to the usual English one (LPCM here). Interestingly, this is not a port of the same HD master as the German disc; the opening credits are in English compared to the Italian ones on that prior release, with the same going for the shots of Rome writing her diary. This transfer has identical framing and very similar color timing, with the same slight windowboxing on the sides. It's definitely easier on the eyes as the layer of fake frozen grain is gone, though this appears to be due to some digital filtering that pulls out a bit of texture in the film itself as well. Overall this is probably the best way to watch the film at home as it looks pleasing without being harsh or unnatural (frame grabs are only part of the story as the textural differences are much more obvious in motion), but it's also likely to become another chapter in the ongoing debate about how tricky or problematic films should be handled on home video in HD. The bit rate is lower, hovering more around the 20 mark, though this doesn't seem to affect things one way or another. A very thorough and rewarding package overall for one of Polanski's most obscure, misunderstood works.
KOCH MEDIA GERMAN FRAME GRABS
Updated review on April 16, 2016.