17 June 2004 | dwingrove
"Do I LOOK Like I'm Joking?"
If you've ever longed to see Marcello Mastroianni being flogged in a tiger skin, What? is the film for you. He plays Alex, a smarmy ex-pimp who lives in one of those terminally fabulous villas that only seem to exist in Italian movies. He gets his other kicks by dressing up as Napoleon or crushing ping-pong balls with his feet.
Among the villa's other denizens are an arthritic pianist, a clutch of sex maniacs, an American husband and wife who bicker endlessly about time zones, a stone-faced German nurse who reads Nietzsche, a pair of sun-bronzed lesbians and a dying millionaire who expires with a blissful smile on his face - after getting a glimpse of the heroine's private parts. Sounds like a normal weekend round at my house...
Into this dislocated universe steps a wide-eyed, Henry James-ian innocent abroad. Sydne Rome plays a backpacking American hippie chick who escapes from an attempted gang rape on the Italian autostrada. (In their impatience to get at her, the would-be rapists get confused and start raping each other by mistake.) She hitches a ride to the villa in a giant metal cage, only to become the sexual plaything of all and sundry.
What? is one of those few movies to play on the obvious notion that 99% of all pornography is just plain silly - hence unwatchable to any viewer with even an elementary sense of the ridiculous. Its 'parody porn' screenplay reads like an LSD-fueled collaboration between Escher, Borges and Lewis Carroll. Not only is it far and away Roman Polanski's funniest film. It is also, quite possibly, his most stylish.
A well-timed revival of What? might do wonders to rescue Polanski from the Oscar-winning solemnity in which he has lately become mired.