Review: Diary of Forbidden Dreams (aka What?)

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

What’s being called Diary of Forbidden Dreams or simply Forbidden Dreams in its current run is actually Roman Polanski’s 1972 opus What?, being released in the U.S. for the first time to cash in on the director’s recent notoriety. Like Dance of the Vampires, which he made five years earlier and which also suffered a ridiculously obvious retitling for its American release, What? looks like a film on which the director emphatically did not have final cut. The English-language version, at least—dubbed by predominantly British voices and edited by people with British names—looks like less than what Polanski must have intended. Still, judging from the evidence (which is all one can do), it’s hard to believe there was much good in the film to begin with.

It’s a venture into the surreal world of dreams—erotic, paranoiac, recurrent—symbolized in a Romanesque villa where a lot of curious people come and go with no apparent purpose. The heroine (Sydne Rome) stumbles into the place while trying to escape from a trio of rapists who have been thrown into a momentary muddle by the attempt of one of their number to sodomize another during the rape. In succession she encounters: distinctly absentminded servants; Alex, a shy ex-pimp with a taste for s&m (Marcello Mastroianni); some rowdy youths who discuss and perform sex with the same detached agility that characterizes their PingPong-playing; a violent, pugnacious short guy (Polanski himself) who enjoys brandishing a harpoon gun; a wayward priest; a pair of American tourists; a pair of German lesbians; a severe nurse who reads Nietzsche while administering digitalis to the villa’s aged master, Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith); and a self-pitying arthritic pianist (Romolo Valli) who plays Mozart divinely. The pastiche of characters and situations evokes Alice in Wonderland (walking on the beach the heroine tells Alex, “I’m Scorpio—what sign are you?” to which he replies, after a befuddled moment, “Lobster”); but this heroine’s well-meaning, impossible naïveté puts her well behind Alice.

If there is something like a theme in What?, it has to do with the rejection of “noble art” in favor of the flesh-and-blood world of “real people.” The pivotal point is the arrival of a German art dealer—who looks for all the world like Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan—to deliver a masterpiece, only to be told by the master’s secretary that he is no longer interested in images but in the objects themselves. The eponymous old man, Noblart, dies of a seizure exulting in the glory of the heroine’s private parts and the erotic possibilities of a female leg painted sky-blue, while masterpieces that have long since begun to bore him moulder into ruin around his bed. What this meant for Polanski’s career is anyone’s guess (he went on to make Chinatown and The Tenant); but if the film signals some kind of shift from purposefully highminded art to a more popular, realistic, generic art, then What? seems more a part of the world it rejects than the one it embraces, if only because of its pretensions. The oddness of the film seems contrived for its own sake, never springing from the necessity of any unified concept or vision. Nothing about the cinematography or the editing creates a dream continuity or an oneiric atmosphere. What? is roughly contemporary to Luis Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgoisie, and both are filled with cyclic and repeating dream occurrences; but the similarity ends there. For Buñuel’s film is a minor masterpiece, while Polanski’s is at best a failed vision—evidence that expressionism, not surrealism, is Polanski’s true forte.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

DIARY OF FORBIDDEN DREAMS (formerly WHAT?)
Direction: Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Polanski and Gérard Brach. Cinematography: Marcello Gatti, Giuseppe Ruzzolini. Editing: Alastair McIntyre. Production: Carlo Ponti.
The players: Sydne Rome, Marcello Mastroianni, Hugh Griffith, Romolo Valli, Roman Polanski.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.