"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is"-Noel Coward
After the music under the credits blasts a few dissonant measures, standard issue audio for a 60's horror film, it makes way for a lush late-Romantic piano concerto, a remnant from another era, the much younger sib of Richard Addinsell's "Warsaw Concerto" from Dangerous Moonlight (1941), or Hubert Bath's "Cornish Rhapsody" from Love Story (1944).
In the tradition of these earlier, "tabloid concertos," it functions both as background music, most notably for the flagellation scenes, and as the sole piece in Nevenka's piano repertoire. Has the lush theme colonized Nevenka's brain from without? Has it flowed out of her obsessed mind and colonized the world round her? Or do the two fold into each other, like the braid of a whip? Once the melody is released, it returns as the film's refrain, heard from piano and organ, solo and orchestrated.
Counting the Whips
The first whip we see is a stodgy, inelegant object: thick, flaccid rope and stubby wooden handle. Nevenka turns it over on the beach, lost in thought. She looks toward the sea, and when she looks back, it is suddenly taut and in shadow. Kurt is standing on the end of lash; suddenly it appears thinner, more lithe, and energetic. When Nevenka tries to fend off his advances with it, he easily grasps it and seems to cast it aside. But moments later, he turns the whip on her-is it his or hers? Where has it come from? It may be the same prop, but has taken on different qualities-has rope been transformed into braided leather by a act of erotic magic?
After the flagellation, when the lovers are in each others' arms, we are shown a whip, flaccid on the beach. Which whip? Was there just one whip? Can a whip morph?
Soon after, Nevenka's husband Christian sees a whip in his brother Kurt's hands. The camera quickly oggles it in a zoom shot, while he asks, "Where did you get that?" Does he worry about his brother having a whip? Does he recognize the whip as his wife's? Or . . .?
There are still more whips. The door handle to Nevenka's bedroom takes the form of the whip, as does the door handle to Katya's, and to a shadowy storeroom of draped furniture. Unless you take the secret passageway, it seems that you can't get anywhere in the manor, can't cross any threshold, without grasping a whip. Is it the family crest?
No wonder Kurt claims the property is his-it bears the sign of his fetish. Even the lurid red tendrils twisting in the vicinity of his tomb suggests that here life, death or the interbreeding of the two-puts forth whips.
The movie's last image is a whip twisting in the flames of Kurt's coffin. (How did it get there? Is this yet another whip?) As it writhes, like a flagellated body, it shows its energy continues with undiminished intensity.
While the manor, the crypt, and the zombie-melancholoid family are reminiscent of Poe, the whip is something else.
The whip connects bodies, whether living or spectral.
"The Same Old Story"
The Whip and the Body is a homecoming, and as in Greek tragedy, the homecoming is a bloodbath.
The funeral unites them in the chapel above the crypt-the ultimate family reunion. The crypt is the heart of the home, with a secret passageway to dad's room. The crypt is at once a structure separate from the manor and the foundation of it, just as Kurt is both exiled from the family, and its heart-providing its crest, its shrine, and its organizing myth. The outsider and the incestuous threat at once.
(The family crypt is the mythical heart of the home-the modern domicile, which outsources its dead, is by comparison vacuous.)
The funeral reunion shows family and domestic staff looking shifty and guilty as hell.
The priest in his Orthodox vestments dominates this scene. He is less a character than a ritual presence, pointing to a fixed social structure and system of belief outside of the manor that is otherwise notably absent. His ritual slows down the film's otherwise restless rhythms. The participants, for once, have to stand still and keep quiet.
The priest assumes that Kurt's killer is multiple-"Let us pray for them," he invites the assembled suspects.
He speaks as if the difference between the living and the dead is absolute and irreversible-which the film contradicts.
The service's predominant icon is the crucifix on Kurt's coffin-that sadomasochistic fetish of undead Western spirituality. It appears center screen more than once, suggesting an indeterminate relationship of the fetish on the coffin to the corpse inside.
When we are shown Nevenka's room immediately after, we are introduced to it through a another shot of a crucifix.
Kurt and Christ are positioned as proximate figures. Are they opposed: Jesus crucified or whipping Kurt? Or variations on a theme?
"The corpse could be anyone!"
Our eyes cannot discriminate between living and dead. Kurt appears at doors and windows in spectral blues and greens, but also appears in flesh tones as robust as any of the living. The living, for their part, take on spectral tones just at the thought of Kurt. As Christian walks down a corridor in unsuccessful pursuit of his brother, he passes through zones of blue, green and flesh, which do not indicate different emotions or states of being, but a fluctuating terrain of intensities which folds physicality and spectrality, life and death, into each other.
Similarly, the spectral muddy boots and bootprints are indistinguishable from the physical ones, for they are all staged.
Do we really care who wears the boots? They (and we never know how many pairs there are, or where all that mud comes from) have their own fetish life and ability to proliferate. Two pair appear in the storeroom as Christian explores it. Although unmuddied and unworn, they have a fetishistic power to unsettle him.
How many whips? How many boots? Daggers? Crucifixes? Fetishes multiply, transform, turn up in unexpected places but most vitally on the threshold between the physical and spectral.
"Oh, Sir! What happened?"
All the family members are suspects.They accuse each other and their unexplained actions and gestures feed our suspicions. Where does dad go when he disappears into the secret passage? (A secret passage renders desires-and destinations-secret.) How does the dagger end up under Katya's mattress? Why is it in Georgia's hands? What is Lesot up to, acting like a crazed security guard, clambering up cliffs in the darkness, spending so much time wandering in the crypt? Nevenka, hysteric, expands on the accusation implicit in the priest's sermon-"We're all guilty!"
But we watch Kurt die, and it is obvious no one is there with him. The curtains ambush him. He struggles, pulls the dagger from his throat, and slowly, gracefully, lets himself down to the floor. No space for a murderer to hide, let alone a gang. Everyone is guilty and innocent.
It clearly not suicide-Kurt is surprised and struggles. The dagger does not seem to cut into his throat, but emerge. Another fetish object with a trajectory of its own.
Our awareness of the Kurt's death gives way to an awareness of an actor crafting an outrageous illusion. The plot synopsis selects this moment as pivotal, but it turns out: (a) there's precious little difference between a live Kurt and a dead one; (b) the pleasure of the moment is sheerly gratuitous. Christopher Lee creates the illusion of struggling and being killed. Actor and character, plot and performance are folded in a flagrant slight of hand that both creates illusion and reveals it as delightful hokum.
"Show us your wound" -Joseph Beuys
Wounds wander, fetish-like. The welts of the whip on the back, the dagger wounds in the throat. Kurt whips Nevenka in her bed chamber then bends down, ostensibly to kiss her. The mouth is transformed into a field of red, which after a blackout, re-appears as the fatal dagger wound in dad's throat. Mouth and wound become indistinguishable. Violence rends the surface, makes a DYI orifice.
From Tania's throat to Kurt's, from Kurt's throat to his mouth, through the darkness to dad's neck-a secret passage into Dad's vulnerability. Dad locks up the dagger after it's seemingly done its work of killing the black sheep, but Dad is not safe.
The priest's ritual cannot enforce the boundary between life and death; ailing Fisher King-Dad can't enforce the boundaries of his estate. After a feeble charade of authority, he lets Kurt stay. He had taught Kurt the secret passage to his bedroom years ago; he can't keep him out now.
The passage is an illicit architecture enfolded into the official state of affairs. A rogue topographic feature, not fixed and mapped, but fluid and associative. Christian, the would-be detective, the man who wants a synopsis, can't open the passage, is limited to mapped spaces, to the exclusion of contradictions, the either/or of living/dead.
But this film spawns contradictions. At its very beginning, Kurt rides home on a lightly clouded evening, while Georgia looks out at a thunderstorm. One nocturnal moment, with two weathers enfolded.
"You've always enjoyed violence"
In this joyless manor, in this angst- and guilt-ridden family, only Kurt smiles. As he whips Nevenka in her bedchamber, we see the film's only portrayal of glee. He has come back for Nevenka because, much as she might deny it, she enjoys something, and the prospect of enjoyment is what propels the entire film. Like Amanda in Private Lives or Gilda in Design for Living, Nevenka resists her heterodox tastes, in vain. Kurt's smile, the energy of the lash, and the lush sounds of the piano concerto fuse deliriously, excessively.
"The dead cannot move from their tombs" Lesot reassures Nevenka (with little assurance). She replies: "Maybe they do, if they can't find peace." Given what we see, the line might better be amended to "Maybe they do, if they're enjoying themselves." An enjoyment in which extremes don't temper each other, but braid. An enjoyment of contradictions and improbabilities transgressing both common sense and good taste in pursuit of something more.
Closure is a red herring. We leave the film, freed from any narrative order, emancipated to shuffle events, forget, misremember as our desires dictate-as our delirium leads us. Is Nevenka's death a suicide or a murder, an act of resistance or a capitulation, delusion or clarity? All that and possibly more?
The questions proliferate like fetishes. All we are know is excess. And enjoyment.
The whip twists in the flame.