La Frusta e il corpo

(The Whip and the Body, Italy - 1963)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Daliah Lavi, Christopher Lee, Tony Kendall, Ida Galli, Harriet Medin
Genre: Horror/Giallo/Romance
Director: Mario Bava
Screenplay: Ernesto Gastaldi, Ugo Guerra, Luciano Martino
Cinematography: Ubaldo Terzano & Mario Bava
Composer: Carlo Rustichelli
Runtime: 91 minutes

"You haven't changed, I see. You always loved violence" - Kurt Menliff

In the hands of a lesser director, Whip and the Body would not have been memorable. Aside from the S & M, which could have been pointless exploitation, the story is a fairly standard gothic murder mystery; one of many chamber pieces about a quickly declining aristocratic family with many dark secrets. It's Bava's keen since of visual storytelling, his portrayal and evocation of feelings through carefully orchestrated set design, lighting schemes, camera movements, and silent the acting he gets that distinguish the film.

One of the biggest differences between the American murder mystery or horror film and the Italian giallo is that the Italians aren't afraid to explain things later or never bother to. The results are often frustrating, but they will produce brilliant moments in the hands of the right directors like Bava & Dario Argento. In most cases, the quality of these pictures winds up being determined by whether the brilliance overshadows the bizarre ultimately inexplicable red herrings or drowns in the sea of them.

The opening segment of Whip and the Body is one of those moments of brilliance. It connects a beautiful shot of the beach at sunset with a dagger. Bava loves to jar the audience and create a sense of mystery and anticipation. His revelation of the dagger combines all these aspects, as we see only the top portion shaking in a jar before he tilts down to reveal the bloodstains on the knife and link it to the surrounding roses. He doesn't linger on this shot. In fact, cinematographer Ubaldo Terzano pans left seemingly before the shot should end. While Bava's foreshadowing is at a high, he's equally successful in twisting what he's previously shown. It's only over time, really at the end, that we understand more and more what he's chose to do when.

At first we think the pan left is to reveal Giorgia (Harriet Medin) at the window, but in retrospect what's important is the red curtain, the blue illumination of the window, and the window itself. The segment ends with the focus on Katia's (Ida Galli) hands as she comes up from behind and accidentally scares Giorgia. I imagine viewers not used to the giallo will write this off as a cheap scare, but even if you do there should still be minimal registration because hands are excellently recalled in a later scene. If you don't, you'll notice that all of these locations, objects, and colors will be so key to what you'll see in the next 86 minutes.

While Whip and the Body was way ahead of it's time in many technical aspects as well as in its honest handling and graphic depiction of a taboo subject, sadomasochism, it's also very much a transitional film. Bava is much more famous for 1971's Reazione a catena (Bay of Blood), a good film that in a way it almost destroyed the horror genre because it was so horribly borrowed from by the pathetic and reprehensible Friday the 13th, the popularity of which has forever haunted fans of horror as an art form that can say something about and/or unearth aspects of human beings and their society. Those expecting that fast pace and a number of gory stylized murders will be sorely disappointed. Whip and the Body is very much an old style slow-paced atmospheric horror that's powered by what we think we'll see rather than what we actually do. To me, either style can be good or bad depending on how it's done. Whip and the Body is superior to Bay of Blood partially because it has more heart, but largely because it's more personal and thus Bava conveys himself better.

Suspense and anticipation, something so sorely lacking in what passes for horror these days at the multiplex near you, are created in many ways. One of the more uncommon ways is by actually eliminating options. Early on there's a suspicious scene where the maid Giorgia pours Kurt Menliff (Christopher Lee) some tea. He somewhat jokes saying, "poisoned?" Though Giorgia's response that he'll die the way he killed her daughter, a knife to the throat which Bava uses as the motif of the film without ever exactly showing it, pretty much takes away all other options for his death, it is a prophecy of doom that confirms that she'd more than like to see it. Kurt tells her he only cares about the forgiveness of the masters, but in the following scene as soon as he leaves them we see that his brother Christian (Tony Kendall) still holds a grudge, "You don't know him well, if you think he could be worse." Throughout the film, Bava uses such dialogue, but more so a clever array of visual techniques, to cast suspicion on everyone in the castle.

Bava establishes the secrets of the house early on when Count Menliff (Gustavo De Nardo) is terrified by his son Kurt's emergence from a trap door behind the fireplace in the Count's room. What makes a scene like this as done by Bava good is the impossible becomes possible. He sets up his shot so that we can't imagine an entrance and gives us the sounds before the images, focusing on the terror the scenario creates in the potential victim. I always wonder what Bava would have been like if silent films were still acceptable. He gets some excellent performances from his actors in scenes where they don't speak, with Lee & Lavi's work in this film being some of the best we ever saw in a Bava, but it rarely translates to the ones where they do. To make things a lot worse, while the Italian track has the real voices of everyone but Lee, the English track is entirely and terribly dubbed. This is one of the many tragedies of the film because everyone but Tony Kendall did their lines in English; it's just that at that time Italian features shot without live sound. In any case, while the fireplace scene is hardly a great example of Bava at his scariest, this is the kind of scene that makes anything possible in his world, and allows much of the rest of his film to thrive on your imagination.

Kurt's introduction when Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) is on the beach is classic. Throughout the film, Bava links objects with thoughts, feelings, and emotions. A bored Nevenka daydreams of her lover, making lines in the sand with her horsewhip. The haunting romantic piano score of Carlo Rustichelli, one of the few undisputed strengths of the film, shows her mood rather than giving away that her thoughts are going to come true. Suddenly Nevenka jumps and we see two big black boots, one stepping on the end of the whip, which is in the opposite direction that Nevenka was looking. From there the camera slowly tilts up, almost creating a black screen due to Kurt's cape, until his face is revealed.

One aspect of the film that's a problem for some people is that Kurt's intentions aren't particularly clear. What we know for sure is that he finally returned home after an elongated self-exile due to killing Giorgia's daughter to reclaim his love, Nevenka. Nevenka was to be Kurt's wife, but with Kurt gone The Count's younger son Christian married her. Kurt feels he owns Nevenka and they should be together regardless of marriage or the law.

What the film focuses on is the effects of Nevenka's need for sadomasochism. Writer Ernesto Gastaldi & Mario Bava see it as a contradiction between rapture and pain. Nevenka doesn't want the hurting in and of itself. Thus, she is afraid of the bearer, Kurt. However, Nevenka needs the punishment of his whip because it's the only thing that can sexually arouse her. I don't think there's any deep meaning to Kurt whipping Nevenka; I just think he does what he has to do to get what he wants. Unfortunately, this aspect got the film charged with obscenity in Italy and was cut completely or censored beyond the point of recognition throughout most of the world. Released in the US in an impotent form called What that could only be a more appropriate name if it was followed by The Fuck?, this is the biggest reason so many people thought Bava's film sucked for 25 years until VCI released it in its proper version. Without the two whipping scenes, in the end the film can't make any sense and amounts to nothing more than some fancy technique that comes off as only serving the point of glitzing up an otherwise pointless film. Kurt whipping Nevenka, even though at first she appears to absolutely not want it, is kind of like getting your girlfriend that always tries to refuse to go on the roller coaster on because you know once the ride starts she has the time of her life. Certainly it's partially for his benefit, but by far more for hers.

"The Whip and the Body was ahead of its time in a number of ways. Perceived as a grade B horror picture, its accomplishments went unappreciated for quite a long time, while Luis Bunuel's Belle de jour, made four years later, was universally acclaimed for its daring subjective depictions of a woman's sadomasochistic daydreams. I love Bunuel's work as much as anyone's, and Belle de jour is certainly one of his masterworks, but I would have to say that of the two films Bava's better conveys the heated passion, the turbulent biochemistry, the gravitational pull, and the ultimate morbidity of erotic obsession. And as a depiction of a sadomasochistic relationship, it goes much further," Tim Lucas from the DVD commentary.

I have to agree with Lucas' comment in all regards. In many cases, the names behind the film determine how audiences receive it. When you have respected people like Luis Bunuel, Catherine Deneuve, & Michel Piccoli (granted he worked for Bava in the spy film Diabolik the year after Belle, but considering this was around the time he was working for Godard, Gavras, Clement, Resnais, Hitchcock, & Chabrol it could be seen to validate Bava's actual ability) doing a drama, people automatically perceive an honesty, integrity, and worth to the product. On the other hand, when you have Lee involved in a low budget horror, it's not expected to have any merit. Not that it would have mattered much, but it couldn't have helped that the backers forced all the foreigners to use English pseudonyms to disguise that it was an Italian production. Even Mario Bava, who was established internationally through what unfortunately remains his best known film, the 1960 black and white feature La Mascerha del demonio (Black Sunday), was called John M. Old. Belle de jour is on my list of great films, but I suspect that the assumed worth more than the actual quality of the sadomasochistic depictions goes a long way toward explaining why Belle de jour was so critically praised while Bava's film was panned.

The films share a common theme of the main character being guilty due to the inability to show the world who they really are. They know they can't be accepted as themselves, so they attempt to deceive everyone around them. Of the two films, Whip and the Body is clearly the one the sadomasochism absolutely essential to. Deneuve's character in Belle de jour is a high-class good girl that dreams of being a low-class bad girl. Her rigid upbringing won't allow her to express any of these desires, so while verbally denouncing such activity, she secretly becomes a prostitute. The key to her character though is not her desire for debasement, but that what she "can't" have turns her on. While Deneueve's character is loved by a Boy Scout that treats her like a child and doesn't know how to love her, Lavi's character is trapped in a marriage with a husband that she discovers loves someone else in the castle. Regardless of that though, she's incapable of having passion for this man because he doesn't put the whip to her, while Deneuve could love her husband if he wasn't able to act on her passion. I certainly don't want to make it sound like Belle de jour wouldn't lose from having the whipping or mudslinging scene removed as a censor has never improved a film, merely that unlike Whip the film uses this aspect for characterization and does its exploration elsewhere. Most everything we learn about Lavi's character is through the two flogging scenes. With them, she's a distant, emotionless, daydreamer when the whip isn't to her back. Without them, she's reduced to someone rightfully afraid of a tyrant rather than someone haunted by her inability to admit her love for him.

The object that best represents what Bava was going for here is the rose; it's buds so beautiful but it's thorns so painful. Whip and the Body, one of Bava's first color films, is one of the most beautifully colored films I've ever seen. While many directors could make a great looking film in brilliant Technicolor, what stands out about Whip and the Body is more that the color says so much about all its subjects. Rather than have theme songs for his characters, Bava associates them with colors. The red he uses for Kurt alive reflects Nevenka's feelings toward him, the passion and love going hand in hand with the hurt, blood, and cruelty. Meanwhile, Kurt dead has a pale death warmed over light blue. By associating each form of Kurt with a color as well as with objects (whip and roses), it brings him to mind even when he's not on screen.

Bava's film is not about what's on the screen but what we perceive is lurking. He uses the camera and lighting so suggestively, making us think and feel things that aren't real. Sheets over the furniture make us think of ghosts, while glowing set pieces bring to mind the castle's mysteries that might best be left uncovered or even a supernatural presence. That said, he uses what we have seen as his greatest ally. For example, our recollection of the scene at the piano where Nevenka first sees Kurt's ghost is utilized when the camera focuses on a vase of roses while making a U-turn. The endpoint gives us a distanced eavesdropping view of Christian & Katia's conversation, making us feel that Nevenka is spying from her station even though she's not actually there.

The first piano scene where Kurt returns from the dead is a great example of Bava's effective use of the zoom. Nevenka is playing in trance, motionless except for her fingers moving across the keys, until she's awakened by overhearing Giorgia tell Count Menliff that Losat ("The Italian Peter Lorre" Luciano Pigozzi) thought he saw someone outside. Although afraid of what she might see, Nevenka slowly swivels around and is too scared to scream at what she does see. Cut from a midshot of her terrified face to a long shot of the window with lightning striking to illuminate a head outside in the center of the frame. Like Nevenka, we are startled, but we can't be sure who it is. To capitalize on and add to our feeling, Kurt's identity is revealed through a fast zoom to a close-up of his head. Had editor Renato Cinquini either cut from the distant shot to the close-up or a shot of the camera trucking in because zoom = bad, the scene wouldn't have been 1/10th as shocking and jolting. People hate zooms because they are unsettling, but when the desired effect is uneasiness they can be useful.

Bava loves to show this same stretch of beach at sunset with the tide coming in. The first few times I saw it I just thought, "there's that nice beach Bava likes to use." Later, I noticed the first time, when Kurt was returning home, the sky was half blue and half red, foreshadowing the clash it would cause Nevenka (her face is lit like this then turns the red of Kurt alive as she imagines the bumps in the night are him returning to whip her). The second time it turned red, foreshadowing his murder. The third time, right after the murder, it was the pale blue color of death. At the funeral, we see a lighter shade of this blue cast on Kurt when the coffin is opened, but the red is cast on him when it closes to foreshadow his return from the dead.

The major misstep of the film is starting the second half with Count Menliff dead in his bed. Telling you that the murderer has no apparent reason to kill the Count wound not give away their identity because no one has reason to kill him at this point. You could certainly argue that Kurt had a reason to kill him considering he's responsible for Nevenka being married to someone else. However, Kurt had could have disposed of his father after coming through the trap door at the beginning of the film, and since that conversation nothing changed between those two. Normally this type of death would be an excuse for a killer gore set piece, but all we see is Count found the next morning.

Throughout the film, Bava brilliant blurs the line between the objective and subjective points of view. It is not until the final moments that he makes a clear switch between them, explaining all the important things we need to know without a word being uttered. Unfortunately, instead of ending with the climactic scene there's needless exposition in case you didn't get it. While the dubbing is atrocious and there are a few problems here and there, Whip and the Body is clearly a masterpiece of color, composition, lighting, and cinematography.


Gift Set DVD
Gift Set DVD
Gift Set DVD


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