The intriguing follies of Roman Polanski

Sydne Rome in What? ()
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Simon Abrams

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Having made 19 feature films over the course of 39 years, several of them masterpieces, Roman Polanski can be excused for having a few clunkers in his oeuvre. The Ghost Writer reminded us just how good his brand of bleakly absurd existential thrillers are. And now, with Carnage, his adaptation of Yasmina Reza's stage play God of Carnage, about to open the New York Film Festival, Polanski is rightfully being celebrated at MoMA with a comprehensive retrospective, including some films he only starred in, like Andrzej Wajda's Revenge.

Of the films screening at MoMA, the ones to really seek out aren't not-quite-so-well-known titles like Tess or Bitter Moon, but rather the totally obscure ones, like What?, which screens this Sunday, and Pirates. The latter two films are largely considered to be follies for the otherwise unassailable Polanski, with good reason. But What? is at least an interesting failure, a silly sex comedy packed to the gills with inspired slapstick and surreal sight gags. It's a daft and not a little confusing formal exercise whose meaning fittingly gets lost in translation. And Pirates ... well, Pirates deserves every unkind word that's been said about it. While What? is a diamond in the rough, Pirates is just plain rough. The difference in quality between the two films is the difference between good obscure and bad obscure.

Both films are outliers in Polanski's filmography for a number of reasons. His bitterly sardonic style of humor is not especially salient in either film, though it is most definitely there. In fact, both are closer in tone to The Fearless Vampire Killers, an airy though surprisingly more well-known horror-comedy Polanski made in 1967. In Vampire Killers, Polanski plays a nebbishy, inexperienced apprentice to a doddering Arthur Van Helsing vampire-slayer type. Being as reliant as it is on physical comedy, The Fearless Vampire Killers is the most light-hearted of Polanski's films. And yet it still ends with a comic promise of further bloodshed, teasing the viewer with the knowledge that one of the film's main protagonists has, unbeknownst to the other characters, been bitten and turned into a vampire. In Polanski's films, every cloud, no matter how fluffy, has a black lining.

Pirates has a similarly foreboding conclusion, though you wouldn't know it judging by the way that Polanski stages the scene. This light-hearted adventure doesn't have a serious bone in its body. And it shows in the way that Polanski begins and ends his film with a shot of two pirates, one played with embarrassing gusto by Walter Matthau, stranded on a small raft while a hungry shark circles them. The status quo that he returns his character to by film's end is a small raft in the middle of a big sea with nothing but a hungry predator and a shameless old man to keep him company.

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The genial but overdone style of comedy in Pirates is reminiscent of the kind that characterizes the non-threatening but just as badly mishandled live-action "Asterix" comic book adaptations that are wildly popular in France and nowhere else. Like the Asterix films, which co-star Gerard Depardieu as a super-strong but dimwitted Gaulish viking, Pirates has an impish sense of humor and no sense of judgment. It has all of this spastic energy to burn and not even an instinctive understanding of how to use it up. Pirates also has a curiously naive and pure-of-heart young protagonist, a rarity in Polanski's films. Jean-Baptiste (Chris Campion) is the reluctant but noble companion to the ignoble Capt. Red (Matthau), a no-good pathological liar and possibly Jack Sparrow's long-lost grandfather. Unlike other young protagonists in Polanski's movies, Jean-Baptiste does not get annihilated for simply wanting something more than the right to survive. In fact, he gets to return to the deceptive safety of the raft he rode in on at film's end. For a Polanski protagonist, many of whom wind up becoming disillusioned and beaten by the world that they try to claim their rightful place in, that's not half bad!

The same is also true of Sydne Rome's comely naif Nancy in What?, a farce that revolves around miscommunication. Nancy starts the film as a hitch-hiker and ends the film on the back of a truck headed for parts unknown. Between these two bookend sequences, Nancy has lost all of her clothes. By film's end, Nancy is naked and frantically fleeing Marcello Mastroianni and the other loony inhabitants of a nearby villa. This is after Nancy has been groped and ogled by everyone from a stray dog to an ailing Hugh Griffith. And yet, weirdly enough, for a film that seems to have more in common with a Benny Hill skit than a Polanski film, What? is actually pretty funny.

At least, it's pretty funny in the beginning. The first 30-40 minutes of What? are as clever and inexplicably mean-spirited as anything in Polanski's body of work. Mastroianni's peculiar and effete pimp is especially hilarious. He saunters around with a jittery kind of noblesse. But once he gets Nancy alone, he insists that she whip him while he crawls around on the floor wearing only a tiger-skin rug. Unfortunately, by the time Polanski's half-formed nothing of a film reaches its conclusion, even Mastroianni's schtick becomes tiresome. A scene in which he whips Rome on a nearby beach while wearing mirror glasses and a Napoleon costume is just flat-out bizarre, and not in a good way. What? starts out as a surprisingly good whatsit and ends as a lousy oddity. Here's hoping Carnage is at least as inspired, though hopefully a tad more cogent.