American hitchhiker in Italy Nancy (Sydne Rome) has taken up the offer of a lift from a group of three ne'erdowells and they quiz her about her travels, but she reassures them she's not worried about being attacked when there are decent sorts like them picking her up. How wrong could she be? Before long, the trio are attempting to rape her, but when the car stops and they all pile out one of the attackers gets carried away and starts raping his friend, giving Nancy the chance she needs to escape. She finds herself in a small cable elevator which she travels down towards an expansive seaside villa and looks for assistance now she has lost everything but the clothes she stands up in and her diary.
The appropriately titled What? - another good name might have been "Huh?" - was one of the absurdist black comedies that director Roman Polanski wrote with his regular creative partner Gérard Brach. However, if you were anticipating the uneasy laughter of a work of theirs like Cul-de-Sac then you may well have been let down, as the humour is by turns to silly and simply not funny enough to have you rolling on the floor, never mind chuckling lightly. At first the film appears to be an excuse to have its star Rome as naked as possible, but Polanski calms down after that and opts to pursue his joking around with her perceived innocence.
Also turning up is Marcello Mastroianni as former pimp Alex, who Nancy discovers when wandering the corridors looking for something to wear - while she was sleeping in the night someone took her T-shirt. Clasping her diary to her bosom, she improvises with a napkin and we begin to find out more about the idle rich who populate the rambling house. And it's not only the house which is rambling, as the story is best described as loosely assembled, if you can call it a story. Time and time again Nancy meets a character who is so wrapped up in their own world that they fail to connect on any meaningful level - Nancy might as well have been part of the furniture if the men she meets weren't attracted to her.
It's only Alex who our heroine takes a liking to, for reasons of carrying the action forward rather than anything else because he has a tendency to act strangely to the extent of dressing up in a tiger skin rug and demanding to be whipped, or dressing up as a policeman and "arresting" Nancy. Other inhabitants of this place make it resemble a role playing game that she has stumbled into, only a game with no apparent point and some have observed that What? is a tribute of sorts to Alice in Wonderland with a grown-up protagonist prompting sexual implications. This analogy only goes so far, and eventually that "making it up as they go along" feeling takes over, rendering the film more like an opportunity to have a nice holiday in Italy with a spot of filming thrown in. There's only so much of this cruel whimsy that you can take before boredom sets in, even if it does look bright and attractive. Music by Claudio Gizzi.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.